When It Comes to Craft Beer, Can We Get Over the “Local” Bullshit?

People, can we get over the “local” beer crap?  Please.

What follows is an out-and-out, in-your-face rant. You’re welcome to ignore. I won’t be offended. (And if you’re not connected to or interested in the craft beer business or community, none of it will make sense. So you should ignore it. Please. Go have a good beer!) 

As my beer readers likely know, Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company) is launching New Albion Ale, a re-creation of the first microbeer in the US from the first microbrewer, Jack McAuliffe. BBC/SA is using Jack’s recipe and Jack supervised the creation of the beer. Sam Adams/BBC won’t make any profit on this project; all of that goes to Jack.

Today, someone at Facebook posted a link to a video from Boston Beer Company about the New Albion launch. And someone posted a comment saying, in effect, too bad the project wasn’t being carried out by a “local” brewer.

To which my initial reaction was: What the fuck?

My second reaction: What the hell is LOCAL? New Albion closed its doors 30 years ago. What, precisely, is “local” for a defunct brewery?

My third reaction: What the HELL difference does “local” make? If you’re gonna get bent out of shape about “local,” then you need to stop drinking Sierra Nevada, Stone, New Belgium, Left Hand, and about fifty zillion (okay, I exaggerate) other craft beers.

Because many craft brewers distribute their beers regionally, nationally, and, yes, even internationally. If that means their beers are no longer politically, craft-ily correct enough for you, well — you’ve got a problem I’m glad I don’t have.

My fourth reaction was: For fuck’s sake, how do you think a “local” brewery could pay for the project undertaken by Boston Beer Company? Where would a tiny local brewery find the money to make the beer, let alone advertise this project?

My fifth reaction was: Get the fuck over this “local” shit and the idea that the only “real” craft beers are based on an equation based on a combination of location and size, a combination that apparently ignores the significant factor of quality.Now that I’ve finished ranting (although no, I’ve not exhausted my extensive vocabulary of profanities), let me run a few facts past you:

Fact one: Many years ago, Jim Koch, the founder and president of BBC, and a craft brewing pioneer (albeit a controversial one) noticed that the trademark for New Albion was about to expire. So he grabbed it. Why? Because he didn’t want some bozo to start making “New Albion” beer as if it had some actual connection with the original New Albion craft brewery. (*1)  Jim cares about history.

Jim’s held the trademark all these years. He likely wouldn’t have done anything other than protect it, had it not been for my book. That’s not arrogance; it’s a fact. For all intents and purposes, until my book came out, no one in the craft beer biz knew where he was or why he mattered. Now they do, and he’s been honored by the craft beer community since then.

Fast forward to 2012: Jim Koch decided one way to honor Jack’s contribution to craft beer was by releasing Jack’s original beer. The official announcement came at this year’s Great American Beer Festival in October. The beer launches in January.

Here’s another fact: No one in craft brewing has done more to turn ordinary beer drinkers — and whether you like it or not, that’s the biggest group of beer drinkers in the U. S. — on to good beer than Jim Koch. No one. His beers function as “gateway” beers, just as Starbucks functions as “gateway” coffee that eventually draws people to the little indie coffeeshop down the street.And when he’s not busy dishing out gateway beers, Jim makes imaginative, high quality beers for the geeks.

Here’s another fact: Several years ago, there was a serious hops shortage in the U. S. Jim had enough hops on hand for his own needs, so he offered up what he had left to those who needed some. Did he do this because he truly cared about his industry. Yes, I believe he did. Was this good PR? Of course! He’s in the business of making money, just like every other craft beer, including your sweet little local guy down the street.

But being a good businessman is not incompatible with having a heart and soul.Is Jim Koch a “big” brewer? Depends. As he says, compared to, say, Anheuser-Busch, he’s a pygmy. Compared to your “local” beermaker down the street, however, Jim’s “big.”

Why does that matter?

What’s the connection between size and “local” and those intangible traits of “quality” or “heart” or “soul”?If you care about good beer, or “independent” businesses, or businesses with heart and soul, then “local” is irrelevant.

As it happens, my ire coincides with an unrelated recent spate of news articles about “craft” versus “crafty.” If you’ve missed this kerfuffle, you can learn about it by googling (or Binging or DuckDucking or whatever search engine you use). (*2) As far as I’m concerned, it’s all marketing smoke and mirrors (as my friend Jim Koch once put it). (*3)

This business of “my beer is holier than yours” is counter-productive and irrational.You want to drink good beer in the United States? No problem. There’s LOTS of it around. Even in the small town in central Iowa where I live, thanks to the good beer makers who’ve decided to make their beers available regionally and nationally.

Do I care if it’s “local”? No. What I care is that these several thousand small, family-owned businesses are making good products in a sustainable business model that aims to do good, not evil.

If you don’t like it, well, alrighty. Don’t drink any New Albion Ale when it comes out. Stick to your “local” beers. Me? I’ll enjoy all kinds of wonderful beers. Because I can and because so many men and women in the craft beer community (emphasis on “community”) understand that the virtues of quality need not be constrained by location.

*1: Think Schlitz, PBR, etc. as beer brands now owned by holding companies and beers that having nothing to do with anything other than marketing.

*2: The most painful commentary about it came from Schell in New Ulm, Minnesota. They’re no longer “pure” enough to be with the craft beer gang. Go read the piece for yourself. I  got weepy. I’ve met the people at Schell. They’ve been here making beer longer than I’ve been alive; much longer.

*3: Indeed, it’s literally marketing. The Brewers Association has hired a “real” public relations firm which, as near as I can tell, is quite good at its job. This “controversy” about craft versus crafty is a) manufactured; and b) doing a great job of drawing attention to craft beer.

15 thoughts on “When It Comes to Craft Beer, Can We Get Over the “Local” Bullshit?

  1. Hell yeah! I totally agree. In fact, I wrote a similar rant on my blog here:

    “local” has become nothing more than a marketing buzzword. One that immediately equates “high quality” and “altruism” when neither are necessarily true. If you local brewpub makes crap beer (and there are a few around me) don’t patronize them.

    The whole idea of “local” beer is also asinine because the ingredients to make said beer are shipped in from all over the country, if not overseas! How many times have you bought a craft beer that bragged about its use of German noble hops, BELGIAN yeast or English malt? If the ingredients are from elsewhere, all the brewers are REALLY doing is simply assembling them. So your “local” beer isn’t all that local after all.

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  3. If you’re gonna get bent out of shape about “local,” then you need to stop drinking Sierra Nevada, Stone, New Belgium, Left Hand, and about fifty zillion (okay, I exaggerate) other craft beers.

    Not if you live in Chico, San Diego or Longmont (close enough to Fort Collins to drink the last two) [insert whatever grinning silly face you want]

    I agree that the “too bad it isn’t local” comment is silly. And I agree pretty much with the paragraphs before and after this sentence:

    If you care about good beer, or “independent” businesses, or businesses with heart and soul, then “local” is irrelevant.

    But, to me, local is as relevant as independent and “heart and soul.” Maybe I’m just a greedy bastard.

  4. I don’t agree with the way a person used ‘local’ to criticize the Boston Beer Company’s effort to protect history – which I agree, everyone should be applauding. This person probably doesn’t understand that BBC essentially has to do it to make sure they can protect the trademark.

    Caring about a good beer scene where I live isn’t bullshit to me though. I find that absurd, at best. A lot of people love knowing their brewers and staff, being able to visit the tap house, try the rare beers at the brewery and in neighborhood bars you can’t get elswhere…. local isn’t bullshit.

    I don’t drink beer made in my state or city exclusively, and I agree, we should celebrate great beer wherever it’s made. But supporting local business matters (not just in beer) too. Jobs, civic pride, making your city a place that travelers and young people can enjoy – local definitely matters.

    It’s important to me to support those breweries so they make better beer, and more of it. There’s a rational side to drinking local, and you don’t have to be a tool to do so. I’ve found that there are annoying people in all fields of interest/hobbies, and beer is no exception. Let’s not blame the term ‘local’ just because people are being annoying when they use it.


  5. Great Post! I feel like some people treat beer the same way they thought about music especially in the early 90’s. If a band was “local” or “underground” they were cool but he minute they started to get a following they were main stream or sell outs, thus making them not as good. Take Green Day for example they were a major indy band that lots of people liked but yet weren’t something you would hear getting major radio play. All of a sudden a big hit, the Dookie album comes out, and they are watered down and not as good according to some. It’s like some people only want things to be their own best kept secret.
    If the local brewery down the street made it “big” does that mean their beers aren’t as good anymore? No. The same amount of heart and soul will go into their brewing the same way a musicians drive will push them to make good music despite the number of people that are listening or drinking it in.
    I could keep going on but right now I’m enjoying a Dale’s Pale Ale and by no means are they local, and guess what it is delicious.


  6. It’s always interesting the things people really get worked up about 🙂

    I’m pretty boring when it comes to beer – it’s almost always either Heineken or Grolsch. And while I am always glad to try the offerings from small brewers I have no particular interest in the “craft beer scene”. Cuz again, I don’t drink a lot of beer but when I do…it’s almost always Heineken or Grolsch.

    I applaud those that do have an interest in small and/or local brewers and I think, from the people I talk to, that their support for craft beer and local beers is as much a sentiment against large corporations as anything else. Many of those same folks prefer not to spend their money with large corporations where the CEO is paid one or two hundred times more than the average employees salary.

    I’m all for supporting smaller brewers, and businesses in general (particularly businesses that provide products that we eat), and thus supporting a more diverse array of offerings in the marketplace. And while sometimes all the talk about “being local” may be a tad overdone I think most of those people have their heads (and hearts) in the right place.

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  8. I think your response to an idiotic comment is equally idiotic. Couldn’t you have picked someone more intelligent to respond to? Why sour the idea of the “local” movement because some moron used it out of context? In fact, most of your ranting seems to be because they used it out of context which you didn’t really get.

    “Local” is a response to people wishing their money could be better spent in their immediate area and not in some factory brewery in the mid west somewhere. I try to buy local whenever I think they have a decent alternative, but I am by no means someone who won’t drink whatever beer is put in front of me. You have to understand the reasoning behind the “local” movement to know why we choose to spend our money locally.

    The California Craft Beer Guild comes out with stats, much like the BA, that make me proud to buy local. Craft beer in California employs 22,000 people, contributed $3 billion to the California economy, and paid more that $400 million in taxes. That is something I can get behind in spades. I would much rather support a brewery in California than a brewery in another state. But again, their location is more of a guide for me when I’m at the pub or shopping and not an unbendable rule. I want to foster growth where I live, increase demand, and create a healthy environment for other breweries to enter.

    If you only care about the quality of beer then this is lost on you, but I think of the people my money is employing, the positive interactions breweries have on their neighborhoods, and encouraging more people to brew in my area. You see this movement with food such as the Slow Food movement, why not beer?

    Seems to me this rant of yours was directed to only one person and I bet they could care less.

    • actually, I care deeply about “local” — but I gather I didn’t make my point clearly. Local is great. The idea that something “ought” be local and when it’s not, well that’s not good — is dumb. You may want to take a look at two of my other posts this week — the ones about about “community.” Because, yes, I DO understand “the reasoning behind the ‘local’ movement.”

  9. Heh. No idea why I responded to just the last commenter. It’s clear that I didn’t make my point — botched it so badly, in fact, that apparently no one got it. (Memo to self: Do NOT try to write after long day dealing with bureaucrats.)

    I’m absolutely in favor of “local.” I understand a LOT about the “local movement,” more, I’m guessing, than most people because I’ve been researching this very topic for the last chapter of new book.

    What I don’t favor are knee-jerk reactions: “Ah, too bad this wasn’t done locally.” When what was being done was a) a good thing; and b) it’s TOTALLY unclear how doing it “locally” would have worked and why, in the case of New Albion, it would have been better.

    The value of why people might want to eat/shop/drink locally is in the process of being distorted into unrecognizability by knee jerk reactions like the one I responded to last night. INdeed, it’s already happened. Given what I know about the history over the past 30 years of the “local” movement (and, yes, that’s how old it is), the value and meaning of local has already been diluted into meaninglessness and, worse, gentrified into an elitist concept — when it was born as an idea the complete opposite of elitist.

    How many hours/days left in this week? One day. 24 hours. Think I can manage another rant???? (Hey! At least I’m good at SOMETHING…)

  10. Folks tend to go overboard on everything. It’s one thing to try buy “local” whenever possible (which I do) and quite another to get all crazy snobby about it. I know people who are living like a real-life Portlandia skit with their exclusively local looniness. I do support local beer makers because I like to put money in my neighbors’ pockets, but I’ll drink decent craft beer from anywhere. What I won’t do is drink swill from from the Big Three no matter how they try to dress it up like craft beer. Just like I’ll never shop at Walmart.

  11. Slightly different but it annoys me when people in Southern California became obsessed with the “local” beer movement. I love many of the local breweries, but the attitude in the bars around that have a very strict local-only policy is funny to me. Fact is, none of the water they are using is from the Pacific Ocean, and are using the water that comes in through the aqueducts that are drying up the Colorado River, and the San Jose aqueducts. So how local and sustainable is it?

    The best is most of their menus use mass produced non-local non-seasonal products that cater to the gastropub crowd.


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