Far Away (So Close)

It’s time for Great American Beer Festival’s annual renewal, and while I must confess to having wonderful and enduring memories of my three trips to Denver during the 1990’s for the express purpose of attending the GABF – apart from the airport, not once did I so much as make it outside the city limits – it doesn’t interest me nearly as much now as it did then.

But in truth, my twelve years of GABF absence say far more about my own turbulent and evolving state of consciousness than it does about the largest single display of American brewing prowess staged anywhere on the continent each year. Verily, I’ve nothing bad to write or say about the GABF as a May Day-style parade of craft beer, with its smokes and sours, hops and malts, new and old, all rolling past the reviewing stand.

Soldiers, rockets and tanks – they’re so passé in a Cold War sort of way.

In fact, the GABF makes me wax patriotic … well, almost, and in a specific context. Mass pep rallies like the GABF’s clearly illustrate the size, scale and pervasiveness of the craft beer revolution, and yet perhaps perversely, as the movement expands, my field of vision seems to be narrowing. The further outward we go, the more inward my gaze becomes.

In some ways, what was once micro is now macro, and given that we aging philosophy majors never tire of defining our terms, there are numerous questions to be asked.

In short, what’s next – big or small?

Expressed more prosaically, and directed squarely at myself: Once you’ve decided to put your mouth where your money is, isn’t it time to begin paging Comrade Trotsky and asking, could you please explain the permanent revolution theory just one more time?

Another question goes something like this, although Trotsky wouldn’t have been able to answer it: How far away must one travel to celebrate the explosion of the local brewing culture in his own backyard?

And yet another: From how far away must a beer travel to be accepted as properly stylish … to be “in”? Forget carbon footprints; they only measure the expenditure of fuel over distance. Think of legitimacy footprints, or to be more blunt, the measurement of snob appeal over the same distance.

I remain a citizen of the planet, and I was a beer “snob” when Reagan ruled. Yes, diversity and choices always outrank paucity and deprivation.

At the same time, I increasingly see craft beer’s next major challenge as returning to a grassroots perspective. Ironically, it’s one that we may never have truly embraced in the first place.

I’m becoming obsessed with the need for consistent, engaged community education aimed at explaining what local craft beer is and why it matters. We need to go where we haven’t gone before, meet people we haven’t met before, and share with them beers they haven’t had before. And, we need to find answers to still more questions.

1. What about price point? Currently there is an almost unbridgeable reality to a socio-economic separation between those who are willing and able to pay more to drink up-market beers, and those for whom a $2.00 for mass market beer in a bar is the high end, and the limit.

2. What about flavor profiles? We cannot try to emulate mass market tastelessness. At the same time, we shouldn’t expect the untapped demographic to graduate from Pabst to barrel-conditioned quadruple IPA in one step. I suspect that when it comes to price point and flavor, the lines on the graph intersect in the vicinity of session beers.

3. What about “better beer” snobbery? I’m guilty of it, and will never make a full recovery, and yet a significant variable has changed locally since the time, two decades ago, when quality imports were the only game in town. Once again, as was the case before, great beer is being brewed right here in Louisville. If session is the solution, the economies of scale as well as the logistics of freshness work best with locally brewed beer.

As for me, an ongoing, personal involvement with downtown New Albany’s hard-fought revitalization efforts has exposed me to a world of ideas loosely configured as New Urbanism. Running parallel to these tenets is the “buy local” movement, which as a small businessman (and entirely apart from beer and brewing) strikes me as the perfect antidote to the high cost of low price (Wal-Mart) and the subsequent outsourcing of America.

Of course, for many years craft brewers have been saying this: Think globally, drink locally. How do we sell the idea of brewing localization to the many beer drinkers on the other side of that divide? Is it micro, or macro?

How do we tear down this wall?

Roger A. Baylor
New Albanian Brewing Company

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