Written by John Wurth
“Art can never take the place of social action … but its task remains forever the same: to change consciousness.”
– Amos Vogel, from “Film as a Subversive Art”
When will craft beer finally change the consciousness of the American beer-drinking mainstream?”
I’m tempted to answer one question with another:
Should mainstream consciousness ever be the desired outcome for craft beer?
But let’s play it straight. Some might say that craft beer consciousness already has arrived. Craft beer’s availability is wider than ever before, and statistically, most Americans live within close proximity to a craft brewer, even if the average measurement is skewed by Michigan as compared to the Deep South.
Slowly, even this imbalance is changing, and craft beer consciousness is penetrating all geographical areas of the country.
More tellingly, America’s copycat megabrewers are quite conscious of craft’s escalating impact. Through imitation and outright, unrepentant piracy – the only recourses for corporate regimes cruelly deprived of the creative gene – mass-market mockrobrews, from Blue Moon and Shock Top to zombie craft beers like those from the late, lamented Goose Island, now are routinely positioned to distract truth seekers. As always, bucket loads of marketing cash are wielded to pull soothing layers of mistruth and gloss over the eyes of the undiscerning.
Overall, my personal view about craft beer’s consciousness is that for all our obvious gains, we’re not quite “there,” at least yet.
Rather, when sociologists and psychologists at last begin studying craft beer drinkers close up and personal, we’ll know that mainstream consciousness has drawn to within a whisker, because there is no more reliable indicator of mass-market impact than the urgent need to understand the behavior of those consumers inhabiting segments poised for profit. That’s how the real money gets made.
While the analysts and shrinks are cogitating, perhaps they can help me with persistent examples of what might be termed cognitive dissonance in craft consciousness.
A prime example includes the inability (read: unwillingness) on the part of credentialed craft beer enthusiasts to tell the difference between craft and crafty as they avert their eyes from the Goose Gambit’s shelf-space-seeking drones, which are intended primarily to shift money to faraway corporate shareholders. It’s the most patently obvious bait-and-switch tactic since door-to-door driveway resealing, and yet it is ignored by many who plainly know better.
While we’re at it, these battered and blotted Rorschach findings also may help explain the most disquieting aspect of craft beer consumer behavior, at least to me: Anti-local craft beer unconsciousness.
It is my aim to re-situate the burgeoning craft beer movement within a context of economic localization, to revert the revolution to its point of origin, and to describe how the very consciousness of buying local is important both in non-beer terms, and in the specific way it impacts the craft beer ethos. Recently I wrote:
Shift happens. It is perhaps the single, fundamental tenet of emerging economic localism, and when it comes time to have a beer, the concept of shift means putting this principle into liquid practice.
Having acknowledged the efficacy of buying local, as measured by factual indices consistently recognizing that localism keeps more money in one’s community, my household is incrementally shifting toward local sources of goods and services, whenever practical.
Shift is a process, not an all-or-nothing crusade. If my shift to locally brewed beer implied being compelled to drink an inferior product, obviously I would think differently. Fortunately, it does not.
And yet for some otherwise knowledgeable practitioners of the craft beer ethos, “local” and “inferior” remain synonymous terms.
It is interesting to consider the contrasting reaction to “buying local” that exists, quite apart from the merits of local beer, when we speak of the retail sector: Hardware, groceries, clothing, floral arrangements and the like. I hear it often:
“But wait: You cannot compel me to spend more money than I wish to spend.”
The perception is that buying local always entails higher expense to the consumer. Actually, numerous studies have addressed this perception, and the price differences therein typically are not as profound as imagined, if they even exist at all. Probably what doubters mean to say is that they cannot be compelled to surrender the big box, exurban shopping ease of finding all consumables under one roof – and that’s a different topic, one falling outside my parameters today.
But when it comes to craft beer, independent small brewers seldom hear objections about price, because craft beer enthusiasts understand that handcrafted products using higher quality ingredients within smaller economies of scale cost more than mass produced ones do. Consequently, a different and less readily explicable form of pushback occurs in the context of local beer and brewing.
How about some locally brewed beer, guys?
“No, because you cannot compel me to drink poorer quality beer. Only the best for me, you know.”
This reply never fails to utterly befuddle me.
I’m a trained BJCP beer judge, and after thirty years in the beer business, obviously I’ve been around the block a few times – just ask my liver.
When I attend beer festivals these days, my samples invariably are drawn from “everyday” beers as made by small, local breweries, if only to remind me that seldom are these beers in any way unsuitable. On those rare occasion when there’s a quality problem, I’m constructively honest in identifying it, and if I can do so, in proposing a solution. Without dialogue, there cannot be a community. Without community, very little about craft beer interests me, anyway. Craft beer consciousness isn’t me against the world.
It’s us against the world.
Unfortunately, there exists a minority of self-identified craft beer opinion shapers for whom it’s never quite enough for local beer to be good, solid or sessionable.
What’s more, for them, local beer by definition simply cannot ever be “sexy” enough to justify a variant of beer enthusiasm sated only through insularity, exclusivity and narcissism, and before readers take me to task for erecting a straw man, permit me to add that I’m well aware of what such snobbery entails, because I’ve spent years now slowly recovering from its debilitating influence.
You’re damned right I’ve sinned, but consciousness is subject to evolution, and so is conscience. When I look back at my career in beer, I’m not always happy with my modes of expression, but know this: Narcissism’s not my gig, and never was. Expertise isn’t about keeping; with me, it’s all about teaching, and my record should speak for itself in that regard.
In my opinion, the breezy and frankly disdainful attitude that local beer cannot be good is a form of misplaced elitism and condescending snobbery ultimately injurious to craft beer’s larger interests. Attack mass-market swill at will; it deserves censure, but craft beer cannibalism is another matter entirely.
Beer as we know and love it does not exist in a societal, historical or ethical vacuum. Rather, craft beer consciousness exists within a community, and if we wish our community to grow sustainably, we must share our expertise broadly, not narrowly.
Consequently, I challenge the shadowy sect of narcissistic beer enthusiasts to help spread wisdom, not hoard it; to enhance local brewing and not detract from it; and in summary, to be part of the solution, not a collection of snarky Wonkas in the making. We have enough of that, already.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I remain a realist. Nothing I write or say in this column can substantively change attitudes that derive from a wide variety of wants, needs and experiences. Life’s too complicated for simplicity and we’re all different as people, but what I can make absolutely clear is this:
I’ve got the backs of local, independent brewers in this region, and when the smack starts getting talked, I’ll be there to answer it. It’s a matter of deeply held principle.
Consider joining me by waving potential craft beer converts into the tent, not erecting barriers to their enlightenment. In such a fashion, consciousness changes – and grows.