For your reading pleasure, remnants from the cutting-room floor from an essay I just wrote for All About Beer magazine, titled “What Revolution?” In it, I argue that craft brewing is just one part of the marvel that is the American beer industry. It will likely never become mainstream, but it’s as much a part of who we are as the Establishment brewers. For more background to this three-parter, see this entry.
Jackson pinned his hopes for craft brewing’s survival on the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). It was there, he believed, where brewers and consumers met face-to-face, that craft brewing could turn the tide against Big Brewing.
“There is no greater celebration of American beer,” he said — and no better way to introduce the public to the enormous “variety” of beers that was becoming the hallmark of American brewing.
Variety,” he wrote, “is its own most potent advertisement.” (*1)
If that were true, craft beer, rather than MillerCoorsAnheuserInBev, would dominate today’s market, but Jackson’s other point is worth noting. He argued that the festival’s reputation had grown beyond the Denver area because the “national media” had taken note of the event’s the annual list of prize winners.
The GABF, wrote Jackson, was successful in large part because of its focus on competition and awards. No surprise there. We Americans thrive on competition. We’re the people who turned yoga into a competitive sport. We revel in prizes and medals and ribbons. An entire session of the GABF is devoted to handing out hundreds of awards. Take those away, and what’s left are hordes of (mostly drunk) men and women who love the convenience of one-stop shopping and drinking.
In short, the Great American Beer Festival, which celebrates innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, competition, success, and failure (as measured by awards), is a microcosm of American culture.
Let’s stick with the GABF for a moment. The festival’s focus on awards inadvertently sparked craft brewing’s first major internal conflict: The battle over contract brewing. The episode is worth a closer look because it, too, offers insight into the ways in which craft brewing reflects the contradictions and complexity of American culture.
The conflict over contracting began in 1985 when Jim Koch showed up at the festival. Koch, who had recently launched Sam Adams beer, walked away with a prize that year and the next. His fellow beermakers were not happy. Why? Because Koch did not own or operate his own brewhouse. Instead, he rented brewing equipment (“contracted”) from a small regional brewery.
Koch’s decision to contract stemmed from his understanding of the financial equation before him: He himself had no training as a brewer. He started with limited funds, certainly not enough to buy or build a brewhouse. He knew that successful brewing depended in large part on expertise and quality equipment. So he rented, rather than purchased, the talent and the brew vats, and spent his few dollars on quality ingredients and marketing.
His fellow craft brewers wanted none of it. Contract brewers, fumed one “real” brewer, were just “marketing people” “more interested in making a buck than in actually brewing quality beer.” The whole thing was “dishonest.” (*2) “If I were running [the GABF],” complained the late Bert Grant of Yakima Brewing,
I wouldn’t allow any contract brewers in the thing. You wouldn’t know Sam Adams from Iron City [a Pittsburgh brewing company] except for a little caramel malt.” (*3)
The critics spoke too soon. A few years later, craft brewing was populated by dozens of contract brewers (including the one who had accused contractors of being dishonest).
Sources: *1. Michael Jackson, “Jackson’s Journal: Beers of America Stand Up and Be Counted,” All About Beer 9, no. 1 (April 1988): 14.
*2: Suzanne Alexander, “Is A Beer Local If It’s Produced Not So Locally?,” Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1989, B1.
*3: Cottone, Vince, “Beer & Loathing in Denver: The Great American Beer Festival 1986,” American Brewer (Summer 1967): 17.