No worth without principle

My career has been riddled with controversy, which I never fully understand.
— Liz Phair

Louisville’s annual Brew at the Zoo (BATZ) has come and gone, and while by most accounts it was bigger than ever in 2013, fair-minded observers can (and will) differ as to whether it was “better” this time around. So it goes, and I can’t offer a valid opinion, seeing as my weekend was spent in Lafayette, Indiana. NABC participated in the 2nd annual, Indiana-craft-only Beers Across the Wabash festival, and a wonderful time was had by all.

At this juncture some might ask, and plausibly: But Roger, you always claim to be a localist, and Lafayette is three hours away – so exactly how is that local?

There are different answers for that sort of question, some serious and others more light-hearted, as in “local is anywhere I happen to be drinking.”

It remains that we’re a brewery seeking business in Metro Louisville as well as the entire state of Indiana, and hopefully again in Greater Kentucky once we’ve shed the slothful Soviet-era albatross otherwise known as Heidelberg Distributing.

As a director on the board of the Brewers of Indiana Guild, I’ve become accustomed to thinking and planning in terms of incremental progress, overlapping circles and the overall notion of shift. Consequently, one spends much time engaged in a progress approximating triage, making decisions and prioritizing according to resources, time and guiding principle.

It seems to me that these latter considerations sometimes are misunderstood. In a nutshell, the first two are somewhat negotiable, but the principle … not so much.

Louisville Craft Beer Week (LCBW) is almost upon us, and it will conclude on September 21 with the annual Louisville Independent Business Alliance (LIBA) Brewfest, as moved from a former date earlier in the summer to provide an exclamation point for an ever-expanding LCBW. Apart from the obvious fact that LIBA’s very essence is intimately linked in a conceptual sense to independent, small-scale brewing, its beer festival operates within a firm local and regional craft beer context, and as such, it’s probably the closest thing we have to a signature beer festival in Metro Louisville.

I suppose the question (if there is one, but you know me) is whether Louisville needs such an event, and if so, how it would be organized … not to mention the best destination coffer for its proceeds.

For quite some time now, I’ve been annoying readers with subversive ruminations on various contradictions inherent to contemporary craft beer culture. Narcissism tops the list. Another centers on the institution of the beer festival as we have come to know it: You pay a price (don’t get me started about VIP tiers), get a souvenir cup, and navigate ever larger crowds in order to ingest as many 2-ounce portions as possible before the equestrian police clear the grounds with truncheons left over from the last World Cup football qualifier.

Okay, okay; it isn’t always that bad. Still, even if all beer festivals are created equal, some are more equal than others. The fundamental truth is that there is a tipping point somewhere on a techno-weenie’s i-Pad graph, illustrating that x number of people occupying y square footage, and given z as a price point, leads almost inevitably to the craft beer equivalent of a cattleman’s feed lot, as opposed to a proper venue for growing and nurturing craft beer.

Brewers caring to speak honestly almost always will offer the same response when asked which sort of gatherings they prefer. We tend to think that smaller is better, especially when organized by fellow brewers, because at an event like Lafayette’s, 27 Indiana breweries and a crowd of 1,100 afforded greater face time and the reasonable chance to educate beer lovers. These conditions are far less achievable at an event on the scale of BATZ, the prime motivation of which (and I’m only repeating what its backers concede both publicly and privately) is making as much money as possible for the chosen cause.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, either, as the same can be said of past LIBA Brewfests (not to mention my own guild’s annual BIG Microfest). It’s just that speaking only for myself, and not denying the efficacy of the institution of a metro zoo in any way, shape or form, monies generated by independent small brewing businesses at the LIBA Brewfest subsequently are reinvested to promote the notion of local independent small businesses overall.

In other words, localism begets localism, the game is worth the flame, and I like those odds.

Just know that in a typical calendar year, craft breweries like mine are offered dozens of opportunities to donate beer, money and time to perfectly worthy non-profit causes. Solicitations have grown exponentially over the past few years as interest in craft beer has spiked, and we do the best we can to support as many of them as possible.

Accordingly, we’ve come over time to view our potential levels of support in two basic ways: First, when it comes to the beer itself, we’d like to be paid; various laws often require this, and wholesaler discounting schemes also are subject to state control. We think wholesale price isn’t too much to ask, seeing as fundraising event organizers still reap the value added to a keg of beer, whether disbursed as sample size or via full-cup sales.

Moreover, we almost always donate gift certificates, silent auction items and the like to help raise even more money. For many years, I’ve donated personally guided group tasting NABC certificates, and these generally attract good bids. Everyone wins.

Other fest factors sometimes matter on a case by case basis. If the event requires a commute, perks can help (discounted hotel rooms or meals for brewery staff, for instance). They’re not always necessary, although they help with the decision-making triage.

Bear in mind that I’m referring here to an informal policy of NABC’s, and obviously, I cannot authoritatively speak for all breweries. Our working lives in such cases are more complicated than ever before, and much of what we can and cannot do increasingly is subject to control by state authorities. There always will be exceptions, but the number of exceptions cannot be more frequent than the rule itself. After all, we must remain in business, too.

Is there a need for a signature beer festival in Metro Louisville?

Perhaps we already have one, i.e., the nine delightfully cumulative days of LCBW. Taken as a whole, it’s the best time to be a craft beer fan in these parts, and there’s something for everyone.

Ultimately, comparisons between LIBA Brewfest and BATZ probably are unfair, and yet I sense there is lingering discomfort from the summer’s social media controversies, so allow me to add that while both organizations surely need money to survive, my own personal principles as a small, local, independent businessman bot constitute and are mirrored by LIBA’s everyday mission, and these principles are what guide me when deciding how NABC will make choices among a plethora of admirable non-profit causes.

Contrary to what you may think, I have nothing against BATZ. The point I’ve been trying to make this year is that BATZ is one of many scheduling options, and one of many deserving non-profits. When weighing contingencies, ideological harmony must be considered. Beers Across the Wabash has it, and so does LIBA Brewfest. Given BATZ’s decision to accept AB InBev sponsorship cash in 2013, its bar got lowered, and that is sad.

You’re free to deny reality until the end of time, but Goose Island is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the beer world’s largest extortionate conglomerate, and it contradicts virtually every tenet of my daily business existence. Granted, we’re all free to take whatever money is offered, wherever we find it, and when BATZ accepted AB InBev’s big bucks handshake this year, the result wasn’t just Trojan Goose at the event. It was Stella, too.

Fortunately, the realm of principle operates according to a different unit of currency than the expedient of “for sale to all comers,” and one’s conscience needn’t ever be up for grabs. NABC is delighted to espouse the gospel according to LIBA, and in the future, we’ll be just as happy to actively return to the wonders of the zoological garden – that is, once craft (as opposed to crafty) principle is restored.

Is principle really controversial? I’ve never fully understood why. It’s actually lifeblood, or at least it should be. Enjoy LCBW in 2013, and don’t be afraid to think.

  1. exactly. thanks for running this


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