Drink Parochial

Miles Liebtag, June 04, 2015

Allow me an anecdote: not long ago, I was in a high concept beer bar/restaurant in Ohio, and overheard a wholesaler rep’s pitch to the buyer there for a keg of a world class double IPA, produced by a widely respected and undeniably great brewery. The buyer balked, saying that he had a sixtel of a DIPA from a local brewery coming in that week. The wholesaler rep, flustered, asked, “Is it as good as the one I’m selling?” The buyer demurred. The wholesaler rep, without missing a beat, pitched something from Ohio.

This scene is being played out in every beer bar in central Ohio on an almost daily basis and, I’d wager, in just about every bar in every market with an established or developing local beer scene. As craft beer becomes increasingly mainstream and the market increasingly atomized, “local” as a signifier has become increasingly valuable. In the central Ohio market, one need only look to Budweiser and Miller-Coors, both of whom have invested in ad campaigns reminding consumers that their beer is brewed, proudly, in Ohio.

And it is. By any rubric drawn from our shared reality, Budweiser, Miller, and Sam Adams are all Ohio breweries. Boston Beer Co. operates a brewery in Cincinnati that employs dozens and can produce 600,000-700,000 barrels per year; the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Columbus ships 280 trucks a day (and, notably, the brewmaster there is a woman, as at least two of AB’s other production breweries). The only measure by which these breweries could not be said to be “local” to Ohio would be in the area of ownership, which is itself a murky issue. Many hometown breweries are the product of distant investment; one popular craft brewery sharing the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood with Boston Beer, for example, is the direct result of investment capital from Southern California.

So what do we mean when we say local? If we mean a beer brewed nearby, then certainly Budweiser et al qualify. But a cursory examination of the qualities of the signifier "local" reveals that more than anything, the word has become a brand unto itself, a brand that is decentralized and deracinated, locatable anywhere and everywhere that beer (and, incidentally, anything else) is made. Local as generally deployed is meant to connote quality, craftsmanship, and authenticity, something uncorrupted by the pollutant vagaries of supply lines, corporate hegemony, and the profit motive.

As I've suggested elsewhere, authenticity (like "craft" and "local") is a slippery signifier, especially when employed to advantage one product over another. The language of craft marketing obscures and elides the facts of global capitalism that make businesses like local craft breweries a possibility, while at the same time assuring consumers that their purchases redound to ethical rectitude.

Never mind that the local IPA you're enjoying was created with malts imported from England and Canada, spiced with hops from Europe and New Zealand, fermented with yeast from cultures made in labs all over the country, and brewed, fermented and conditioned in stainless steel equipment from China. Consider instead, for a moment, the possibility that the local IPA you're enjoying (or not) was purchased for reasons apart from quality in the glass; that the local beer on tap at your favorite beer bar was perhaps purchased out of a sense of obligation or fraternal fealty; that the beer on tap at your local was purchased instead of another beer, of higher quality but from much-maligned Elsewhere.

“Drink Local” and “Drink Beer Made Here” have become familiar admonitions around these parts, emblazoned on t-shirts and invoked by shortsighted breweries whose business success may indeed one day take them into other markets. “Drink Local When It’s Good” is the familiar rejoinder. With a plethora of new breweries in Central Ohio, there are bound to be a few low cards in that hand, beers that, for whatever reason, don’t live up to the quality standards one would expect in a competitive market. So what gives? Draft lines and shelf space are at a premium everywhere, so why would anyone want a product of lesser or inconsistent quality?

One answer, the best one, is that these beers do in fact contribute something to your local economy. The unseen hand of globalism notwithstanding, the beer is made here; that is, your neighborhood brewery does employ people on-site, for brewing, cellar management, logistics, sales, delivery, etc. Those jobs are undeniably positive effects of the boom in hometown breweries, as are brewery taprooms that overflow with locals and beer tourists alike. And some of these breweries are making undeniably great beers.

But when the fealty to local becomes an obligation, and breweries of lesser skill and ability grab market share despite their inadequacies, the entire market stands to suffer long-term, even if those dollars and jobs are a short-term boon to a struggling local or regional economy. Paul Gatza, director of the Brewer’s Association, touched on this during his 2014 keynote address at Craft Brewer’s Conference, as related here by the Denver Post’s “First Drafts” blog:

Paul Gatza told a story about visiting a beer festival this year.

He went out of his way to check out breweries he had never tried before, he said. Most had opened in the past two years.

Gatza [. . .] said seven or eight of the 10 breweries needed improvement. The brewers didn’t think so, he said. They thought their beers were awesome.

“The truth is, they’re not – and we need to improve it,” Gatza said. He then offered a blunt assessment of the importance of maintaining quality in an industry that is growing crazy fast: “Don’t f*** it up.”

Fucking it up would entail privileging the small, independent and local over the quality, consistent and innovative. Breweries have an obligation as part of their trade to produce the highest quality product of which they’re capable, and only send that product to market; retailers have an obligation to be purveyors of the best products they’re capable of obtaining. 

The standard line in these parts is that local sells. It seems that every craft-centric business opening here, from beer bar to restaurant to bottle shop, starts from a point of wanting to feature Ohio beer as prominently as possible—which would’ve perhaps seemed innovative five years ago. Many of the quote unquote best beer bars in this city have no interest — or, in some cases, no capability — of pouring an import beer, regardless of its quality or desirability. Columbus, for all of its shrill and avowed protests to the contrary, is a fairly provincial place in a lot of ways; one doesn’t see in Cleveland or Cincinnati quite the aversion to the distant. 

So local sells, but at what cost? Consider, for a moment, that the obsession with local is actively limiting your options as a consumer. Would you rather have something made down the road, or something that is truly world class? These aren’t abstractions, they’re questions that are shaping markets in concrete ways. As Mr. Gatza suggested, the obligation to quality and consistency is a question of the health of the industry. As more and more consumers get drawn into drinking craft, they form impressions of what craft beer is based on their early experiences.

This is why brewers, wholesalers and retailers (the ones who matter, anyway) spend an immense amount of time, effort and money to ensure that what’s in your glass or bottle is fresh, clean and unsullied by unintentional imperfections or spoiling. Because your first sip of a beer from a new brewery will affect your impressions of it for a long time to come. This goes extra for consumers new to the craft world; someone presented with a phenolic, hot-fermented mess of an IPA might not just decide they don’t like the brewery or the bar that served it to them, but might decide that they don’t enjoy IPAs *period,* because of that one poor experience. So the next time you’re presented with a beer (local or otherwise), created in a brewery without a lab, without proper know-how or even meaningful quality control, and it tastes *fucked up,* ask yourself: whom does this benefit? 

When the reckoning comes — and by all accounts, it’s coming soon — the breweries in your local scene who will stand up against the rising of the tide will be those who don’t rely on provincialism as a marketing strategy. Loyalty to your home is a beautiful thing, and in beer, art, music, literature and culture generally, like-minded people form enclaves that are specific to a place and foment wonderful bursts of creativity and innovation. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re talking just about culture. We’re talking about business.