Consume This! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Craft Beer

In our October issue of Consume This!, Nathaniel Chapman and Slade Lellock consider ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of craft beer and offer a great example of how personal consuming passions can lead to research projects!

Nate and Slade highlight some of the particular paradoxes and tensions around issues of authenticity, diversity and inclusivity, and invite us to consider future avenues for craft beer research.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire ( Section Chair )

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Craft Beer

By Nathaniel Chapman and Slade Lellock

What began as a couple friends and craft beer enthusiasts passionately discussing their favorite beers over long lunch breaks in graduate school, eventually culminated in Untapped…,[1] the first explicitly sociological volume on the cultural aspects of craft beer production and consumption.

The resulting volume shed light on the emerging field of craft beer scholarship, but also generated many new questions. Given the rapid growth of the industry these issues are becoming more and more visible. As sociologists we should attend not only to the “good” within the field of craft beer, but also the bad and the ugly — areas to which sociological inquiry is especially well suited. In what follows, we identify areas of craft beer research that scholars have given significant attention to (the Good), areas where more work needs to be done (the Bad), and, finally, areas that require highly critical examinations in order to address issues of inequality within the industry and culture (The Ugly). We begin with the Good.

The Good

Craft beer offers a good (great!) focus of research for sociologists interested in culture, taste, and consumption. The field has provided a starting point for socio-cultural scholars—sociologists, historians, economists, media scholars, geographers, anthropologists—to examine issues pertaining to consumption, culture, identity, authenticity, space and place, representation, and value. Craft beer is linked to the local food movement and community revitalization. Breweries provide spaces within which people come together and that give local communities a sense of identity as well as a sense of pride. While craft beer does not necessarily threaten the economic stature of “big beer”, it has certainly shaken American’s understanding of the value of beer, highlighting the ongoing construction of meaning for the consumption objects of everyday life. The meteoric rise of craft breweries around the US and worldwide has given consumers more choices and thus more opportunities to try different types of beer, tapping in to the interests of millennials in particular. As Chapman et al note[2], college-educated white males aged 21-34 make up the majority of the craft beer consumption market. With over six thousand craft breweries to choose from in the US, craft beer consumers not only have myriad options available to them, but also simultaneously have the potential to reject the “big beer” of their parents—a generational joust fought through beer.

The Bad

While craft beer offers a good entry point for research, there is also a considerable amount of confusion and obfuscation at work in the marketplace. In order for a brewery to be classified as “craft” it must be small (producing no more than 6 million barrels per year), traditional (utilizing traditional and innovative brewing ingredients and techniques) and independent (not more than 25% owned by shareholder who themselves are not involved in the craft industry). Mirroring the period of acquisitions and mergers during the 1960s post-prohibition era, craft breweries are currently under attack by the large conglomerate ABInBev. ABInBev, a multinational behemoth, has made a practice of buying up craft brands dozens at a time. Once a brand is acquired, ABInBev begins to produce the brand on a much larger scale. This effectively takes the local product out of its community and makes it readily available to consumers nationwide. On the surface, this would seem like a good thing. All of a sudden my local beer is available everywhere for people to enjoy. However, when one considers why someone chooses craft beer over a domestic brand, it is often the localness, or small batch scale, or unique-to-the-area qualities of the beer that drive the purchase of craft options. By purchasing these breweries, ABInBev are technically nullifying their craft credentials, as defined by the Brewers Association.

Additionally, the industry giant produces many “craft-like,” or “faux craft” brands such as Goose Island. These “craft-like” brands meet the requirement of traditional, but fail to meet the requirements of small and traditional. This leads to confusion among consumers as to whether the beer they are drinking is in fact craft. Both of these actions have driven the Brewers Association to adopt a stamp that craft breweries may use on their packaging, only if they meet all three requirements: small, independent and traditional. This challenges our notions of local and authentic, two qualities that made craft beer so popular in the first place.

The Ugly

In addition to confusion and misleading claims around issues of authenticity and local-ness, the craft industry has a real problem with diversity. With regard to gender: while recent reports suggest that women are increasingly drinking craft beer, Chapman et al and Darwin[3] contend that women are often discouraged from drinking craft beer and the beer itself has become gendered. Women also face significant gate-keeping and are more likely than men to be required to prove their knowledge in spaces of craft beer consumption. Recently, a brewery has come under scrutiny and canceled several tours of its facilities for its use of sexist memes to advertise the festival.[4] This type of marketing, and the hyper-masculine behavior of some men in the industry and culture, leads to feelings of exclusion among women, and discourages women from participating in the culture. The craft industry has tried to address this issue, but not from a sociological perspective. To combat this exclusion, women have founded women’s-only brewing societies such as the Pink Boots Society, as well as featured women at beer festivals, highlighted the work of women in the industry, and actively sought to market more effectively to women drinkers.

The craft beer industry and culture also has a race problem. As Anderson[5] observes, the modern craft brewery is a predominantly “white space”. While women represent a growing segment of craft drinkers, people of color, particularly African Americans, have not seen a rise in consumption. Dating back to the 1960s, the beer industry marketed malt liquor (a beverage viewed to be inferior to regular beer and characterized by higher alcohol contents and large format bottles) and other “less-than” beers to the African American community. Today, the marketing of some craft labels resorts to appropriation of African American culture. A popular brewery in Torrance, CA Monkish is known for using rap lyrics as names for their beers. In a recent interview, the late Anthony Bourdain lamented that craft beer culture as nothing more than a bunch of hipsters writing tasting notes and listening to 90s hip hop. African Americans are not represented in the industry either. Currently, there are fewer than 50 African American-owned breweries operating in the US. Given the rapid growth in the industry, and the sheer number of breweries opening each year, this is a tremendously disproportionate representation in the industry. This has trickled down to the culture as well. Less than two percent of craft beer is consumed by African Americans, a growing problem for a craft culture that promotes the idea that beer is without race or gender.

The Future

Such issues of gender and race/ethnicity offer sociologists a unique opportunity to examine craft beer through a more critical, analytical lens of diversity, inequality and inclusion. In response to these issues, women have started women’s-only beer groups and homebrewing clubs. African Americans have sought to claim their space in the industry and culture. In September of 2018, Fresh Fest debuted as the first ever Black Brewers festival in Pittsburgh. Additionally, blackbrewculture.com is scheduled to debut later this year as the first African American craft brewing website. It also features a monthly newsletter that is geared towards highlighting the emerging Black brewing culture. Festivals and organizations such as these are providing a voice for underrepresented demographics in the culture. It is now our task as sociologists to analyze the structure and role of social institutions in perpetuating these inequalities and to further promote a diverse and inclusive craft beer culture of production and consumption.

Sources:

[1] Chapman, Nathaniel G., J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard (eds). 2017.

Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Craft Beer. WVU Press.

[2] Chapman, Nathaniel G., Megan Nanney, J. Slade Lellock, and Julie Mikles-Schluterman. 2018. (forthcoming) Bottling gender: Accomplishing gender through craft beer consumption. Food, Culture,

and Society.

[3] Chapman et al 2018. (forthcoming); Darwin, Helana. 2018. Omnivorous masculinity: Gender capital and cultural legitimacy in craft beer culture. Social Currents. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329496517748336; Darwin, Helana. 2017. You are what you drink: The masculinization of cultural legitimacy in the New York craft beer scene. In Untapped: Exploring the cultural dimensions of craft beer, edited by Nathaniel G. Chapman, J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

[4] Castrodale, Jelisa. 2018. “Ohio Brew Tour Cancelled After Organizer Posts Sexist Meme About Women.” Munchies. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/ev748z/ohio-brew-tour-cancelled-after-organizer-posts-sexist-meme-about-women

[5] Anderson, Elijah. 2015. “The White Space.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1(1):10-21.

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