Art or Artisanal: Craft Beer Is Killing It, But What Is ‘It’?

Craft Beer Brewery

Can we talk about this craft beer trend?

In a world overwhelmingly dominated by global corporations and profit-based consumerism, craft goods have been growing in popularity. Craft goods provide an opportunity to move out of the Walmart aisle. But, a bit like art, they’re also a split between something that can help us think differently about the world and something that still abides by the logic of the market: they’re bought and sold and, what’s more, they certainly ain’t cheap. Spawned out of our age-old barley fetish, with the main torchbearers being the bearded, hipster hordes of the US West Coast, the craft beer revolution has arrived, and it warrants a few questions.

As with most things, there seem to be advantages and disadvantages. Let’s think through these and why you might tolerate the bitterness of an IPA until you learn to love it and eventually become a raving fanatic.

Principally, craft beer is great insofar as it’s a way of getting people together. Whether that be out of the house and onto the tasting floor of your local brewery (not literally, hopefully), or just to a friend’s backyard with a six-pack of Stones, no one denies that having a drink is an excuse for a get-together. Moreover, the conversation gets kicked off by how much you love (or despise) that watermelon aftertaste or that deep coffee aroma.

Friends with Craft Beer

The diversity and different types of beer also bring a wealth of history, and therein forms a community in a different way. From the specific individuals who make it to the origins of the recipes, craft beer is the product of rich and far-reaching geographies. In this way, unlike other products, it emphasizes the production process. Whereas Nike moves heaven and earth to get you to forget the blood, sweat and tears that literally went into your Janoski Air Max, craft beer is always about the people who made it. I have friends who make beer and when I’m in their neighborhood I grab a couple cold ones, snap a couple pics and tag my buddy on the ’gram.

In craft beer polyamorousness is encouraged. Smash the patriarchy, dude.

In this way, craft beer also promotes diversity and difference. The more rare, unusual or imaginative (provided, obviously, it is still palatable), the more the business thrives! In lots of consumer industries, where companies compete with one another to have a monopoly on the market, the point is to get everyone to buy their model of phone, car or what have you. Where in these cases the aim is to put a ring on it, as it were; in craft beer polyamorousness is encouraged. Smash the patriarchy, dude.

Saying all this, craft goods lend themselves to being hijacked as a form of social currency or hipster signpost.

What happens when the goods become just another way of flagging yourself as a nonconformist who has successfully removed themselves from the system? I’m thinking too of those times when we drop by the farmer’s market on the way home from Target just to include it in our Snapchat story, because, well, we’re liberal like that. It seems that a problem that can arise out of craft goods and artisanal products is the commodification of the experience of being anti-corporate, without actually committing to the principles outside of just getting a little shwasty. The trouble with an expensive form of boycott is it can remain just that: an elitist form of self-gratification for not contributing to the Budweisers and the Coors. It becomes more about how you’re perceived than how you act, and less about the good ideas you actually take with you, post-session, come Monday morning. If craft goods work outside the system, that’s great, especially if you can then envision ways of undoing it, but there’s no use in it just being another form of escapism, perpetuating the weak lager stranglehold of the corporate world.

Acoustic Ales Craft Brewing ExperimentTom and Aaron of “What’s on Draft?” (and the Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment, their day-job brewery).

Some people in the brewery world are more than aware of the pretentiousness and posturing that can sometimes form around the beverage. What’s on Draft, an online TV show by friends Tom Keliinoi and Aaron Mayer, makes fun of the things that might turn the taps off of some craft beer virgins. It’s a new series that visits breweries, tastes the beers and is relentlessly self-parodying and satirical in the process. You can watch the promo video here.

The lol factor of the show is cause for the kind of self-scrutiny required to avoid falling into the category of the image-obsessed trend junkie who just jumped on the beer bandwagon.

This is an industry all about the people and processes behind the kegs.

What’s more, the show is great not just because it’s funny and has critical awareness but because it takes the topic seriously and promotes, again, the sense in which this is an industry all about the people and processes behind the kegs. The guys meet the brewmasters, try the beers and discuss the tastes, ingredients, processes of brewing and so on. Everything is covered, even a few asides to the likes of those breweries that sell out in this growing market (ahem, Lagunitas). All in all, it really is interested in where the stuff comes from and how it happens. As such, it invigorates the movement with that sense of community being at the heart of it all. If only because every beard and their mom is doing it, the show sees the people involved as producers, not consumers, and that’s a refreshing outlook. Moreover, it emphasizes how, at their best, craft goods are about value before cash: the show is free to watch, and the people they speak to really care about their product.

So when I say ‘…but what is it?’ what I’m asking is, whose side are you on? The trailblazing localites or the trail-mix socialites?

Craft Beer BrewingUnder pressure.

Some of these points speak for themselves, like being part of a community, but a lot of the ideas about corporate versus local and people-oriented production surely get lost in the mash (mash is what you make beer with, ya barley-illiterate monkey). So whilst beer can be an opportunity to carve out or, at the very least, imagine a space of collaborative and local work, how much of it just becomes a pay-per-view simulation of being free from guilt or complicity? Obviously there’s also the problem of taste, too. Even if a refined palate might be able to conjure up complex ideas of the multiple ingredients and their origins, as you sip, sophisticatedly at your growler (don’t try it — it spills), aren’t a lot of people just thinking, Mmm, that tastes like coffee and I like coffee? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this — in one sense, there definitely isn’t, and in another it’s surely sufficient that people are encouraged to be open-minded enough to try new things. The problem only arises, I guess, when we think we’re doing our bit by simply not buying Coors. Because we’re not. You gotta commit past that. And besides, I hear drinking Coors is coming back in… End


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