- First Sergeant Edward Welsh, in James Jones's The Thin Red Line
"But to me, you’re not legit until you’ve got skin in the game, which means capital at risk."
- Hugh Sisson, founder and Chief Executive Officer, Heavy Seas Brewing Company
"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation."
- Don Draper, Season 3, Episode 2, "Love Among the Ruins," Mad Men
In an increasingly crowded craft beer marketplace (2,347 breweries, 1,254 in planning, 409 opened in 2012), competition increases as well. Everything in craft beer becomes elastic: brewing equipment and space, hop contracts, and shelf space, among other goods and services. Enterprising brewers and companies have found two market inefficiencies in this environment. The first is termed, somewhat pejoratively, "gypsy brewing." The second is a marketing tactic called "craft versus crafty."
Gypsy brewers do not own brewing facilities. Instead they find breweries with excess capacity and travel, sometimes between continents, to these places to make beer. Though some of these itinerant, wandering brewers have taken out second mortgages, maxed out credit cards, and gone into debt to pursue careers in brewing, they are deemed as being lesser by some, like Sisson above, because they do not own property. For a vocal, but probably minority, group of brewers, craft beer is "all for property."
When Sisson voiced his opinion in Beer Advocate Magazine, there was a minor uproar (please do read the comments on the article), and Sisson quickly backtracked (again, please read the comments), but by then the discursive damage was done, and it is clear that some elements of craft beer do not understand the increasingly "postmodern, transnational craft beer scene." Will Myers, head brewer of Cambridge Brewing Company, reignited this discussion earlier this month, writing that
By making Craft Beer welcoming to all by design, we’ve made it a desirable industry in which people want to play a part. This includes the inevitable number of beer marketing companies, aka contract brewers [definition: a brewery that writes recipes for beers that are then produced by other people at a facility not owned by that brewery] (a few of whom call themselves “gypsy brewers”), who either feel that there’s money to be made in this fad or who genuinely love craft beer but don’t want to invest the capital in their own brick and mortar breweries. This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work. (Source)Note the similar discursive formations of these critiques of gypsy brewing. It has become a meme in the original sense of that word that craft beer, in addition to having high quality ingredients and independence from multinational corporations, must also be associated with a place.
The “property” line of attack on gypsy brewing is telling because it hits these brewers with something they do not have by definition, though ownership of a facility does not necessarily enhance the quality of the beer. The language about property from critics is the velvet glove surrounding the iron fist that is these critics’ annoyance that gypsy brewers are running successful operations and brands without capital, or at least sufficient capital, and without facilities that one can walk in or around or sell or mortgage. The argument about property being a requisite to brewing resonates with both the norms and American dream of business ownership and the image of small businesses as job creators (searching that phrase results in 22.4 million Google hits), and as the lifeblood of the economy (2.7 million hits). These gypsy brewers, according to Myers, are tied to a piece of paper, a contract, not to land, not to a facility, not to property. They have no roots. They are hardly brewers. They are marketing companies. They don't make anything, whereas true craft brewers do. This argument places gypsy brewers outside of an industry. They are instead part of the nebulous service sector.
Perhaps the most eloquent defense of renting, of not owning, functions as a defense of both gypsy brewing and contract brewing, comes from Jeff Leiter of Somerville Brewing Company, also known as Slumbrew. Leiter points out that a great many more "traditional" craft brewers, including Brooklyn Brewery and Sam Adams, began as contract brewers and that he aspires to own and operate a brewing facility. Property? More skin than he already has in the game? Leiter wants that. He wants to become "more craft," in the traditional, normative sense of the term as formulated by Sisson. "With this endeavor, we will surely sign more promissory notes and personal guarantees that are so highly acclaimed as a badge of honor to some brewers," writes Leiter, who goes on to describe in great detail the kind of skin he has in this game, which proves Sisson's point, by following the discursive norms mentioned above, that this is the battlefield on which the argument will be fought.
Holy shit a gypsy brewer actually working... #noskinbutalittlesweatinthegame twitter.com/EvilTwinBrewin…— Evil Twin Brewing (@EvilTwinBrewing) April 21, 2013However, Leiter also, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps intentionally, undermines the Brewers Association's attempt to differentiate craft beer, a definition from a trade association, and "crafty" beer, the second market inefficiency, which is the attempt to obscure the macro origins of beers like Blue Moon (owned by SABMiller) and Shock Top (owned by InBev), among others.
In the end, do the actual people that like our beer and buy our bottles or draught make their decision to support us by whether I checked the gravity on the 2nd day of fermentation at 10:30am? If I am personally not present to transfer our Flagraiser IPA from primary fermentation to a brite tank, will it taste less genuine?A craft brewery, according to the Brewers Association is
- Small : at or under 6 million barrels produced per year, (a number that has been raised twice for Sam Adams),
- Independent: a brewery must have no more than 25 percent ownership by a non-craft brewer, and
- Traditional: in that the flagship beer is a product of malted barley, and not other adjuncts like corn and rice, though those can be used to enhance as opposed to lighten the flavor of less than half the beers brewed (never mind that corn is a tradition brewing grain in the United States; just ask Dick Yuenling or August Schell).
In Leiter's offset quote above the battle is not between ownership versus contracting or craft versus crafty, both of which share a discursive formation focused on ownership and property, be it physical or intellectual, but between beer that tastes good and beer that does not. It is an argument that ignores process, that negates it. Ownership does not matter.
Publicly held (Sam Adams and AB-InBev), privately held (Sierra Nevada), or employee-owned (New Belgium and Full Sail)? It does not matter. A scrappy small business (how every craft brewery views its operation) or a multinational corporation (Bud, Miller, Coors)? It does not matter. Who brewed the beer, and who developed the recipe? Are they the same people? That does not matter. What about output and volume and scope and scale? In five months in 2012, Budweiser sold one million barrels of Platinum (thanks, Pitbull!), more than the yearly output of every craft brewery except for Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. These elements also do not matter here.
For this reason, the idea that taste trumps all may be too simplistic. Purchasing patterns and consumer behavior tell us this isn’t true. Questions like who and where and how and why beer is brewed are as important to many beer drinkers as how the beer tastes. There is a role for process, but what? Were flavoring extracts uses as opposed to original source ingredients? Does it matter that supporting a local brewery keeps money local? That doing so supports neighbors and communities? That the beer will be fresher? That is where this much more nuanced debate will take place once craft brewers stop fighting multiple fronts against crafty, contract, and gypsy brewers.
So let's change the conversation by having a dialogue about these issues rather than counterproductive and distracting arguments over what it means to be a brewer, over what it is to make beer, over a definition of craft beer coined by a craft beer trade association. Gypsy brewers make good beers. Breweries with properties make good beer. Crafty breweries make good beer (and if you’ve had something from Goose Island recently, you’d be hard pressed to deny it.)
Enter Brian Strumke, a gypsy brewer last seen in this space in 2012, claiming that one of his beers, Stillwater Premium, was a "reconstruction" of macro American adjunct lagers, like Budweiser, Miller High Life, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Strumke takes the ingredients of these beers, deconstructs them, and turns them into craft beer, a "postmodern joke" that is deadly serious, uniting the end result of taste with a focus on the process, even if he is not present to oversee all aspects of brewing. Over at DCBeer.com he graciously agreed to answer some questions, and to announce that a new "deconstructed" beer, Classique, is coming to cans. Here is an excerpt.
DCBeer: Premium was phrased as a "reconstruction." Are these beers, Premium and Classique, yin and yang? Or, to use more postmodern terminology, are they mutually constitutive, in that one cannot exist independent of the other? I don't mean that physically, but these beers strike me as two sides of the same coin.The key here is that beer must move beyond the broad strokes. If you’ve had something from Stillwater, you know that not having a location all his own isn’t hamstringing the beer. You’ve no doubt had beer that’s disappointing from a brewery with a lease on a property. The nuances are what’s key here. The discourse is valuable but we must be critical of it for the overall product’s sake, and isn’t that what we’re all here for, to advance beer as a product? We hope you’ll talk about these issues below. How much does the process matter to you? Taste uber alles? How important is locality and freshness to you? Cheers.
Stillwater: I would say they are kind of mutually constitutive... perhaps Classique should have came first, but I suppose it was created out of necessity... so I would have to say that Classique would not exist without Premium.
DCBeer: Another heady question: I wonder if you're familiar with the term "simulacrum," which I'm using to tie the macro lager question and answer to the postmodern one. Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, uses simulacrum to describe an alternate presentation or representation that can challenge the current, hegemonic, dominant order, which in this case would be macro lager, while Classique is the upstart. Is that a fair analysis?
Stillwater: Sure, although I was thinking more on the lines of Jacques Derrida's approach to Deconstruction, that is associated “with the attempt to expose and undermine the oppositions, hierarchies, and paradoxes on which particular texts, philosophical and otherwise, are founded.”
DCBeer: Of course neither Classique nor Premium would exist without American-style adjunct lagers. It’s an interesting relationship. Your thoughts on why Bud/Miller/Coors can't also "fix" this process?
Stillwater: Macro lagers are now a style, and one that appeals and is targeted to a mass market. They were created to emulate pilsners and have now grown to be the American standard for “beer.” While I cheekily joke about “fixing” the process, I am actually just taking a different approach and using the building blocks within that style to make something new, but with a familiar foundation, hence the “deconstruction” aspect of the project.
* The author is indebted to Bill DeBaun for his help with this article. A version of this post appears on DCBeer.com.