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About the movement in Craft Beer Movement

BOOK REVIEW: “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer”

Is the “craft beer movement” a social movement, a political movement, an aesthetic movement, any sort of movement?

Tom Acitelli uses the term, or simply the movement, on more than a third of the pages in “The Audacity of Hops.” He does not categorize this movement, and that probably illustrates how the words “craft beer movement” have become an entity unto themselves. Only a couple of months ago, the Detroit Free Press suggested “Pride, personal experience help define the craft-beer movement” without explaining what makes it a movement.

Within the context of “The Audacity of Hops” the implication would be that Acitelli is discussing a social movement. The publisher states, “This book not only tells the stories of the major figures and businesses within the movement, but is also ties in the movement with larger American culinary developments.” And Acitelli certainly links craft beer and Slow Food, often itself described as a movement and even defined by Wikipedia as a social movement.

(The lengthy Wikipedia list also includes the civil rights movement, right to life, Tea Party movement, Ku Klux Klan, and Health at Every Size. In the end, what constitutes a “social movement” is less clear than finding a definition for “craft beer” and we know what folly that is. Academics have laid entire forests to waste simply theorizing on the life cycles of social movements. If there is such a thing as a craft beer movement, social or not, it would be interesting to determine where it might be in its life cycle. Another day.)

I’m pretty sure that Max Bahnson and Alan McLeod would not label it a social movement. In fact, perhaps they should rename the eighth chapter “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer – A Rant in Nine Acts.” Instead of calling it “Evangelism, Movement and Community” they might have chosen “Evangelism and the Myth of Movement or Community.”

A quick explanation is probably in order. “The Unbearable Nonsense” is a work of fiction, science fiction really and not at all like Evan Rail’s “Triplebock: Three Beer Stories.” Rail’s stories are about fictional characters who, through their actions and the dialogue, eventually reveal truths about themselves and beer, perhaps about ourselves and our relationship with beer. Banhson and McLeod are simply Max and Alan throughout the book, time and space traveling into fictional setting, but talking just like the guys who write their blogs.

Each chapter, as the title promises, provides a platform for them to rant. In Chapter 8 they basically kidnap a guy variously known as Lanky Geek, Lank Geekston and LG, a not particularly adept beer evangelist. He doesn’t stand a chance. They describe him as trying to “keep his grip on the myth.” It is Alan who tells him:

Supporting and promoting what you like is a nice thing to do. Sharing it with friends even better. We all do that… But taking it as a mission, as a responsibility? That just ain’t right. Believing that you, a consumer, are part of a movement that involves producers; that ain’t right either. You’ve been lied, duped. You’ve been disingenuously made believe that you and a group of brewers share a common interest. You don’t. In fact, your interest couldn’t be any more different from theirs.

Alan continues to pile it on, then Max resumes. Eventually, “The lanky guy nodded but kept his thoughts to himself.”

I wish he hadn’t. I wish he’d suggested that at some/many/most post industrial breweries those paid the most make only a reasonable multiple of those at the bottom of the salary ladder, compared to an obscene multiples CEOs enjoy at many large corporations. That would imply such breweries are part of a social movement. Or he might have pointed out that the producers genuinely enjoy the taste of the beers they make, just as the customers who buy them must (or they wouldn’t be buying them). So perhaps an aesthetic movement.

Do I know these things to be true? I’d like somebody (else) to do the research. I wouldn’t suggest it, however, if there weren’t anecdotal evidence.

That “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer” provokes such thinking beyond the words on the screen is a good thing, but I’m not certain what sort of audience this Kindle book (a Lulu version is in the works) will reach. It is one thing to kidnap a Lank Geekston and another to expect him to pay for a series of one-sided rants that will mostly piss him off. He’s not as likely to be entertained as those who regularly read A Good Beer Blog and Pivní Filosof – Beer Philosopher or consider this alternative view.

(And to be honest, even those who agree with the authors may not always be entertained. The word “rant” in the title is perfectly accurate so there is some rambling, and the language R-rated.)

But, geez, it costs just $3.99, less than a pint at happy hour. I only hesitated to hit download when I considered what other sorts of science fiction Amazon might recommend for me based on this purchase.

17 Responses to About the movement in Craft Beer Movement

  1. SteveH January 15, 2014 at 7:15 am #

    “Or he might have pointed out that the producers genuinely enjoy the taste of the beers they make, just as the customers who buy them must (or they wouldn’t be buying them).”

    Being a “veteran” of the Craft Beer Movement, one of my fondest memories is sharing a beer in the afterglow of a long local beerfest I’d attended around 1994 (I guess 20 years makes me a veteran).

    Sharing beers and talking beer were my friend Jim, brewmaster of the small brew-pub that hosted the event; John Hill, owner and brewmaster of Broad Ripple Brewing in Indianapolis; Randy Sprecher, of Sprecher Brewing in Milwaukee; Russ Klitsch*, of Lake Front Brewing in Milwaukee; and Kirby Nelson, then of Capital Brewing in Madison.

    What stands out in my mind is being privileged to sit and listen to the philosophies on beer; brewing, enjoying, researching, learning, growing, that these brewers (who made some of my favorite beers) were happy to be discussing — with themselves and with the likes of a “fan.”

    If that’s not being on the front lines of the “movement,” I don’t know what is. And I’ll still make it a point to seek out the brewmaster or proprietor of a brewery or pub I’m visiting. I’ve done it all around my area and where I’ve travelled; these smaller scale breweries like to meet their customers and hear their views. They aren’t pretentious people and they’re proud of their product and love sharing it.

    So I don’t believe I’d be as passive as Mr. Geekston when braced by Max & Alan. I’m not sure what the brewers are like in the areas they haunt, but the ones I know aren’t shy about meeting enthusiasts.

    To their point of a “mission” or “responsibility,” I don’t believe I ever saw my enthusiasm for beer as anything more than that. Telling others about good beer is more peripheral when the subject comes up; “How can you drink that thick, heavy stuff?” Well, it’s like this…

    *(it may have been his brother Jim, also of the brewery, but 20 years has fogged the mental picture)

    • Stan Hieronymus January 15, 2014 at 7:56 am #

      Good thoughts, Steve. Just to be clear, would you say you are describing an aesthetic movement?

      • SteveH January 15, 2014 at 8:59 am #

        Probably, in that my gravitation to better beers (and those being brewed by these fellows were far better than most available) was an evolution to find just that: something better — more pleasing and interesting (satisfying?) than the bland product that was readily defined as “beer” in my youth.

        So yes, my enjoyment of these new and better beers was more aesthetically sensory than jumping on a fad. I left that to my year of attempted cigar appreciation. ;)

    • Bill January 15, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

      Steve, I _think_ the authors’ point is that what you can say about brewers is identical to what you can say about furniture makers, day care owners, tool-and-die shop owners, etc. They’re probably all passionate about their work, they all want to share that and make a living off of it. What brewers and breweries do to make this happen is indistinguishable from what other small business owners do. It’s economics, with no value judgments attached, and it doesn’t matter whether the business offers beer or cheese or legal services or widgets. And if there’s no difference, where is the evidence for the movement?

      That being said, Stan is likely correct in suggesting LG could have reasonable responses, much like yours touched upon — once upon a time, there was a drive to offer more choices and resurrect what folks believed to be all-but-forgotten beer styles, and there’s still a drive to explore directions beer can go, and there are “buy local” movements and “anti-megacorporation” movements and artisan “let’s not automate every step of the process” trends that beermaking can and often does align with. But nevertheless, there does seem to be folks like the straw LG: folks who forget that whether or not beermaking is a passion or calling for those in the business… they’re nevertheless _in business._ They can’t do all the movement-related stuff if they don’t stay in business. Again, no value judgments on the term “business.”

      • SteveH January 16, 2014 at 7:19 am #

        Bill, my rant was more in answer to:

        “Believing that you, a consumer, are part of a movement that involves producers; that ain’t right either.”

        Now, I never considered being part of any “movement,” as my 6th grade teacher was a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., but I sure felt I was in the thick of the growing micro-brewing surge and felt privileged to have the good opportunity to meet and talk beer with so many respected leaders of said surge.

        To the point that they made me feel a part of things in listening to my thoughts and questions and replying on a parallel level.

        Even today I feel the (smaller*) brewers I meet are down-to-earth and want to know their customers’ thoughts and opinions (most, anyway).
        (http://sessionbeerproject.blogspot.com/2013/08/and-beat-goes-on.html)

        Maybe I’m an odd-man out because I take the time to talk to these people in-person, as opposed to the majority of online Beer Geeks who rant away on chat forums, but I don’t want to be painted the same color as them and be called a dupe.

        (*definition flexible, I’m sure)

        • Bill January 17, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

          Oh, I know what you meant, and generally I agree with you — I’m just pointing out that furniture makers and day care owners, etc. also would love to talk with you about their stuff at that level, want to know their customers thoughts, make them feel a part of things, etc., and nobody calls that a movement. I mean, my experience echoes yours, but I do often suspect that the reason it seems different is that I’m much more interested in beer than in other types of businesses. Again, I think the authors (assuming I’ve guessed what they mean — a neat trick w/o having read the book!) miss the many valid ways of focusing on why this is/could be a movement by focusing solely on the economics. But the folks they’re poking a stick at pretty much show no grasp of the economics whatsoever, to the point of discounting/dismissing/condemning some pretty basic things that one does when one runs a company.

  2. Alan January 15, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    Thanks, Stan. That’s interesting as I would assume LG represents 10% of less of beer fans! The fringy “believers”. But the book was not really written to entertain but to express. Maybe the next one will be more pastoral. Thanks for taking the time, too, I was fully surprised how long it ended up being.

    • Stan Hieronymus January 15, 2014 at 8:01 am #

      Alan, on the Inside Baseball (and personal pocketbook) front I’m curious to see if/how books outside the how to brew/guidebook categories find a larger audience. It’s rather obvious your first goal was to express, but that you understood to engage the readers and make those points you had to at least keep them awake.

  3. Alan January 15, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    Yes, that is quite true and certainly an exercise in exploring how to make expression attractive. But I would not want to minimize how much it was also a project in just getting it out of ones cranium. I have also wondered a lot about different media through the process and now think Al and Max might appear in comic book form.

  4. Bill January 15, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    “I wish he’d suggested that at some/many/most post industrial breweries those paid the most make only a reasonable multiple of those at the bottom of the salary ladder, compared to an obscene multiples CEOs enjoy at many large corporations. That would imply such breweries are part of a social movement.”

    Not necessarily. The vast majority of companies the size of the post-industrial breweries you’re championing have that same phenomenon. When Small-to-midsized Company X only make so much money, you can’t pay the top folks obscene multiples, if you will. So it _might_ be a social movement, but it _definitely_ reflects real limitations on resource allocation.

    • Stan Hieronymus January 15, 2014 at 11:51 am #

      Good point, Bill. Merits tracking as smaller breweries become bigger. .

  5. Pivní Filosof January 15, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    After what happened to him in the questioning room, it’s no wonder he wasn’t more defiant once in the pub, especially after a couple of pints. That Max fella can be really nasty…

    Thanks for the review. And glad you liked the book.

  6. Gary Gillman January 15, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    I think the movement thing comes from the fact of good beer being scarce on the ground starting in the mid-70’s (when craft arose to challenge) and even today when you look at market shares. It’s like blues aficionados in the early 60’s, wasn’t Alexis Korner part of a movement, and the Yardbirds, Stones and Eric Burdon…?

    At a time when good beer was everywhere, London in 1890, say, you wouldn’t have needed this or any concomitant movement to support the producers. Even then there were probably connoisseurs, but the mission idea was absent simply because unnecessary.

    It can be carried too far though, and the worst of it, lionizing beer that is mediocre or even bad.

    Gary

  7. Jeff Alworth January 15, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

    The boys have definitely ridden in on a hobby horse or nine. I’m through chapter two and see some familiar themes developing. It probably wouldn’t help sales, but they’re ideal for blog posts like this. :-)

    On the issue of movement. Obviously it’s a movement. Since 1980, thousands of breweries have opened up across the globe, tens (hundreds) of thousands of people have begun brewing their own beer, and millions participate in various activities related to the consumption of good beer. There’s no way to call this purely a commercial movement, and it’s facile to separate the camps into soulless Barnums and clueless rubes.

    There’s a huge irony here. In order for a thing to exist in a market system, there must be a group to support it. They support it with their dollars. In the case of obscure things, they support it by evangelizing to those who have not heard the word. It’s ironic because Alan and Max are actively participating in the movement with their book–and depending on members to buy their book. There is an extremely important point to be made that breweries are evangelizing because they directly profit from it. And make that point we should–it can lead to bad behavior. But it doesn’t end there.

    Approaching this very gingerly, I wonder if theirs isn’t the argument of a slightly older cohort. Would millennials see this sharp dichotomy? I doubt it. In the forty-almost-six years of my life, I’ve watched social groups morph as civic and religious influences wane and commercial ones wax. Why draw the line at the edge of the commercial brewery? Is it really so different from a church or grange hall?

    • Alan January 16, 2014 at 6:38 am #

      Oh, I am definitely being Oldie Olson. No need to be ginger. That being said, I bought my first punk record in 1977 when I was 14 years old. Cold War? Birth of personal computing? Gretzky and Jordan? Expos??? As I tell my own teens nothing tops my youth culture so don’t try.

  8. Gary Gillman January 15, 2014 at 8:14 pm #

    And I should add: good to see the book out there, hope it does well.

    Gary

  9. Pivní Filosof January 15, 2014 at 11:45 pm #

    There’s something I must confess as an author. While writing, I don’t think I saw the book as a fiction. To me it was basically a rant in an unconventional setting. On the other hand I did see Alan and Max not as ourselves but as characters that are caricatures of ourselves. So, there you have it, it was a work of fiction all along. I like that idea…

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