Consume This! Cultural Intermediaries, Emotion, and the Craft Beverage Industry

In this month’s Consume This!, Erik Withers takes us along to a craft brewery tour, highlighting the role of cultural intermediaries as frontline storytellers in contemporary consumer settings, and the power of emotions, nostalgia and place in those stories.

 —Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

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Cultural Intermediaries, Emotion, and the Craft Beverage Industry: Reflections from the Field

By Erik T. Withers

It’s 4 pm on a Saturday afternoon; a subtropical storm is about four hours away from pummeling the west coast of Florida. I find myself sitting alone with my participant “Stephen” in a broken down 1960’s era Airstream RV that is parked in the backyard of a local brewery in a small rural town. I am visiting the brewery that day to shadow Stephen who is a representative of the brewery. He has agreed to take me on a tour of the empty (but usually packed) brewery—apparently nobody else is crazy enough to visit a craft brewery right before a subtropical storm.

Stephen sits comfortably in the back “wrap around” style bench seat of the RV. He has one arm draped around the back of the seat and he holds a pint of beer in the other. We hear the sound of distant thunder coming from the rapidly approaching storm. Stephen takes a swig of his beer and says: “Well, let’s get started before this storm rolls in and we are stuck back here.”

He asks me if I want him to go through the tour as he normally would, or if I want to just ask him a series of questions seeing that it is just us sitting there. I tell him I want the full experience. He takes another swig of his pint of beer, takes a deep breath, and launches directly into a story about the owners of the brewery and how their path to starting a brewery all began with an old Airstream RV (similar to the one we are sitting in). He tells me that this is why he always starts out the tours outside in the old broken-down motor home. The RV is equipped with a beer bar, DJ booth, and a vintage 1950’s refrigerator that Stephen tells me “still works.”

The motor home seems to be kept up well, but over the years that it has been parked in the backyard of the brewery, it has picked up an old-musty smell. I take a deep breath in through my nose and the familiar scent takes me back to my childhood when my cousins and I used to play around in an old broken-down motor home that my grandparents had parked in their backyard. I feel a sense of nostalgia; I feel comfortable.

Stephen is a professional storyteller, like many of my participants. They draw in audiences and customers by telling them stories about products, practices, and selves—forging connections between consumer products, histories, values, and places. My participants are what many scholars have considered “cultural intermediaries.” Cultural intermediaries play a large role in assigning meaning and value within consumer spaces. Examples are sales representatives, marketers, event specialists, and brand ambassadors. These market agents attach meanings to objects, spaces, products, and practices in order to construct value and legitimacy within markets. In this sense, they turn consumer “spaces” into market “places” by co-creating an environment along with producers and consumers that is meaningful and attractive.

In my dissertation work, I use ethnography and in-depth interviewing to explore the intersectional aspects of cultural intermediary work in the craft beverage industry. Over the course of a year, I’ve interviewed and observed sales people, marketers, and event specialists who work within this industry. My research has uncovered some of the nuanced ways that race, ethnicity, and gender structure the meaning and value making processes that these folks engage in within this industry. However, one of the things that has struck me the most during my time in the field is how emotions are woven throughout their work.

I have visited lazy beach town wineries that make “Florida themed” wines like orange flavored Muscatel and key lime pie flavored sangria (not my favorite by the way, but still worth a try). I’ve been to sophisticated downtown craft cocktail bars where one can enjoy in-house made bacon infused whiskeys and fancy cocktails mixed with frothed egg whites for texture. And, I’ve traveled to rural craft breweries where one has to drive down miles of winding forest lined roads before they arrive to enjoy a hoppy IPA. At each of these sites I’ve witnessed my participants craftily deploy nostalgic stories, aesthetics, and forge relationships in ways that expose deep interplays between emotion, place, client, and product.

I am sure that most consumers would not be surprised by the fact that their favorite bottles of craft beer, fine wine, or craft spirits have gone through many “hands” on the way from “grain/grape to glass.” But, it may be a surprise to many if they knew the amount of heart and soul that has gone into this process along the way. For example, I’ve witnessed one participant captivate her customers by eloquently telling heartwarming family stories about her grandparents’ brave immigration voyages. I’ve cracked up laughing at a tasting event when my participant used the analogy of a “nun fart” while explaining how to properly open a Champagne bottle. I’ve seen a brand representative arrive to find their customers angry that an order didn’t show up, and leave sharing smiles, friendly hugs, and kisses on checks. The role of emotions in the work of the cultural intermediary is strong and undeniable.

As many sociologists have found, emotions always interact with other social structures such as race, gender, and class. This is an important fact that the craft beverage industry must take into account while attempting to diversify their customer base beyond a primarily white/male consumer. Cultural intermediaries can be useful agents in diversity efforts within the industry because of their ability to incorporate and center the stories and histories of marginalized populations. For instance, during my fieldwork I’ve had great opportunities to work with folks who organize events and programs directed towards representing women and African Americans within craft beverage culture. In order for the industry to grow, the stories and histories of marginalized populations (who have helped make this industry possible in the first place) must be represented.

That day with Stephen at the rural brewery, I was treated to a number of stories about the brewery, the products, the people, and the town. Stephen was a fantastic tour guide. He told me jokes, put on funny hats, gave me demonstrations of brewing practices, and introduced me to everyone at the brewery. He was funny, knowledgeable, and charismatic. In the end, I would go back to that brewery in a heartbeat to grab a pint. But, I realize that this is not because of the beer. Although the beverage in my glass was fantastic, I would return because of the nostalgia that I felt there, the stories that I related with and the experiences that I had there that day with Stephen on the tour. In this sense, “taste” is never completely about the actual taste of a product; rather, tastes are preceded by a system or constellation of events that have made it possible for the product to be in front of the consumer in the first place.

Author Bio

Erik Withers is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of South Florida. His research focuses on racial, ethnic, and gendered representations and inequalities within consumer cultural settings. His dissertation, Selling Whiteness: An Intersectional Analysis of Cultural Intermediaries in the Craft Beverage Industry, is an ethnography that explores the nuances of race, ethnicity, and gender within the cultural work of the industry.

Published Work

Withers, Erik T. 2017. “Whiteness and Culture.”Sociology Compass. 11(4): 1-11.

Withers, Erik T. 2017. “Brewing Boundaries of White/Middle-Class/Maleness: Reflections From Within the Craft Beer Industry.” Pp 236-260 in: Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of the Craft Beer Revolution. Edited by: Nathaniel G. Chapman, J. Slade Lellock, and Cameron Lippard. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Withers, Erik T. 2017. “The Impact and Implications of Craft Beer Research: An Interdisciplinary Literature Review.” Pp 11-24 in: Craft Beverages and Tourism, Volume One: The Rise of Breweries and Distilleries in the United States. Edited by: Carol Kline, Susan L. Slocum and Christina T. Cavaliere. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

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