[Disclosure: Thanks to 10 Barrel for paying for a trip to the brewery so that our author could see the current state of affairs in Bend, Oregon.]
I am somewhere below Mt. Bachelor in central Oregon, doing almost 60 miles per hour on a snowmobile. The snow is wet and heavily-packed, melting from a mid-March rainstorm earlier that morning. I’m on my way to a resort accessible this time of the year only by snowmobile, to eat and slug a couple beers. All of this in the name of journalism.
There are somewhere in between six and ten other journalists with me. We’re accompanying the crew from 10 Barrel Brewing Co. and some of their representatives, who have invited us out to Bend, Oregon to, well, I don’t know exactly.
10 Barrel is one of the breweries that comprise the Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) spin-off venture The High End. If you follow the craft brewing industry, you probably already know that this is a delicate way of saying that the company was acquired by ABI and, in the minds of some people who drink craft beer, “sold out.”
This is an easy story, right? I should write that ABI and their acquired lineup have mastered the mechanics of brewing but retained none of its soul. Something unique has become automatic and that, when a task becomes automatic, there's little to distinguish the minutiae from the composite; I should report that the brewers are handcuffed by corporate responsibility even despite what they say publicly; I should write that the authenticity that built the brand has been replaced by corporate speak and company folks toeing the company line in what they say off-the-cuff to journalists armed with unknown motives and ever-ready notebooks.
But I can’t do any of these things because they’re not true. Or at least they don’t seem true.
The cardinal sin in craft beer is selling out.
There’s a peculiar evolution in craft beer consumption. At first, we drink craft beer because it’s bolder, has more flavor, higher alcohol by volume. It does something to us that we like.
It’s only after we make the craft-beer exclusive designation that we begin to develop reasons why we pay twice, sometimes three times as much for a six pack than our friends who are buying light-style American lagers that advertise during football games. We make flavor comparisons to those beers and self-indulgently appreciate our own sophistication. And, in case we need yet another justification, we claim we’re battling “the man.”
“The man” in this context is ABI. They are the soulless wraith at the top of the food chain, ready to devour shelf space and tap lines, and acquire – and thus ruin – small independent breweries. They become the enemy because they are a faceless entity that doesn’t need anymore dollars but gets them anyway.
ABI is a company as welcome in some craft beer communities and conversations as a scavenging raccoon in an alligator den, or Tomi Lehren at Glenn Beck’s Easter dinner.
This is, however, another conversation. This is about consumers.”
That’s the issue at the heart of this story. Why do some craft beer consumers stand atop their pallets of IPAs looking down at other beer drinkers who drink beers brewed by companies owned by ABI? Why do consumers look down on the breweries themselves? If the goal is, as a company, to expand and grow and maximize their place in the market, why do we view this as a bad thing?
(It goes without saying why other breweries would have an issue. Capitalism is a billion dollar pissing contest. It’s about competition. More taps, more shelf space, more marketing dollars is tilting the playing field. This is, however, another conversation. This is about consumers.)
Like millions of parents, I use Amazon Prime around the holidays for my shopping needs; I buy Cheez-It crackers for my kids at the market; Sometimes I get my coffee at Dunkin Donuts rather than the expensive locally-owned place downtown.
All of this is fine: Other parents don’t glare or judge because I didn’t purchase my holiday gifts at a local bookstore, boutique, or shop; Store clerks don’t question with snark the snack choice for my kids because Kellogg’s – a billion dollar entity – owns the brand; No one comments on my coffee choice when I walk into basketball practice holding a generic polystyrene cup of Joe.
And while most industries have their share of sanctimonious naval gazing, self-professed beer geeks seem to be perhaps the loudest dissenters, using message boards and social media to express their outrage.
The 10 Barrel Instagram page looks like a stereotypical beer ad, just like those commercials we see with good looking people doing cool shit and washing down that experience with a cold beer. It’s a culture commonly associated with ABI owned beer: mindless consumption. Craft beer often runs counter to that. There’s a supposed sophistication, that drinking the beer is the experience, not just a part of it. 10 Barrel wants it to be both.
“You move to Bend for the outdoors and to make money so you can use the outdoors,” Chris Cox, one of the founders of 10 Barrel, told me. “For us [Cox and his twin brother Jeremy], it was always about beer and the outdoors. That’s the kind of people we relate to and those are the type of people we are."
“We’ve gotten better at expressing our culture [at 10 Barrel], but we’ve always been about not taking ourselves too seriously. We’re not going to be your prototypical beer geek and we crush a lot of different styles of beer. We love good craft beer, but at the same time, we’re not pretentious at all. We try to portray that in the culture."
“It’s important for us to be who we are ... We like craft beer and we like to have fun.”
Cox insists the acquisition has not changed the company’s ethos, but enhanced it. The Cox twins, along with the third original founder Garrett Wales, now have the financial flexibility to concentrate on the culture without having to deal with budgeting and finances; They don’t have to worry about hop contracts or equipment shortages or keeping the lights on at work or at home; They don’t worry anymore about the self-indulgent dissent of craft beer fans, who’ll say the beer or the company changed since acquisition, or who won’t drink the beer because of the parent company.
“I don’t give a shit about those guys,” Cox said. “We’ve always kind of had that philosophy at our brewery. We brew beer that we like to drink. If some other dude has an issue with that or an issue with the parent company or whatever or thinks that our beer is not as good as someone else's beer, then drink someone else’s beer.”
Of course, 10 Barrel has the luxury to feel this way, to have every one of their professional and personal worries alleviated. Most breweries in the world do not have this comfort. And maybe therein lies the rub. Craft beer is supposed to be the sanctuary of the subversive. They should be sticking it to the man, not creating some unnatural ceiling by joining them.
Craft beer drinkers are fickle in our affections.”
There’s an intimacy in craft beer and maybe what 10 Barrel did betrays that. Growing is the antithesis to charm; There’s no romance after the success. The dollars ensure everyone knows your name.
Does the stripping away of this intimacy necessarily warrant our abstention? Or should we listen to Cox describe telling his employees about the acquisition with visible goosebumps and an audible quiver as “the best day of his life” and believe him? Can it be both or can it only be either or?
In other words, is it fair to criticize any business who has succeeded beyond their wildest expectations and decides to secure a financial future for their families, friends, and co-workers? Acquisitions happen every single day, in all areas of business, why is beer different?
Craft beer drinkers are fickle in our affections. We demand authenticity, but question it if a brewery gets too big; We covet the hidden gem, tell everyone what they’re missing out on, but then dismiss the same place when the crowds get bigger; We want success for breweries we love, but only on our own terms; A beer with the same exact recipe “isn’t as good as it used to be” when packaged differently, or in greater quantities.
This is our right, I suppose. Just as it was our right to question the direction in which breweries we love will go post-acquisition. It’s a question that hopefully the breweries are asking themselves as well.
“When the acquisition happened, there were a lot of unknowns as to where the direction would go,” said Cox. “A lot of people were just fearful of how that would go.”
He admits that he and the partners harbored their own fears.
“[The day of the acquisition], we met with all our partners and the people we were going to be working with and they made all these promises about how 10 Barrel would be run, but we were at the mercy of how they were going to treat the company.”
And, while Cox claims the relationship has exceeded his expectations, it’s also valuable for craft beer drinkers to think about the relationship between independent craft breweries and their parent companies. More than that, maybe it is to establish a baseline for how we feel and why we do about the state of craft beer, what we drink, and why we purchase what we purchase. And maybe where you stand doesn’t change anything other than the fact you’ve thought about it.
Maybe I’ve thought too much about this. And maybe there shouldn’t be a conundrum at all, which isn’t really the way an article about confliction and hesitation and a very banal existentialism should end.
The questions I’d ask are more personal and can only be answered individually and would likely cover the purchase of any consumer goods, not just beer. Do we think about the power structures that manufacture them? Do we care? Why? If the end result is a book on our door step, a coffee in our hands, or a fed stomach, what’s the difference? If it’s a beer that we really enjoy drinking, does it matter who made it?
What kind of moral gymnastics have we done to reach this conclusion?”
Are there moral or ethical reasons to resist large corporations? Probably, and if that resistance is led by a complete repulsion of the entire system, that’s the prerogative of the opinion-holder, but remember the flat-circle of business: The consumers supported the business so well that they grew to a point that a major international corporation wanted to acquire said business; If the consumer didn’t want their favorite brewery to achieve that level of success, the only alternative was to withdraw support.
Are there pecuniary aversions to supporting a billion dollar organization? Are they enough to deter us from buying a ribeye at the steak house because of the grotesqueness of the agriculture business? Enough to deter us from buying those sneakers made in Indonesia? Why is it beer that really gets to us in this regard? Aren’t there bigger battles to wage?
If our resistance is just to stick it to some faceless figure, why are we fighting that fight? And, if we don’t think about these things, if we are simply going to buy what you’re going to buy, drink what we’re going to drink, and eat what we’re going to eat, what kind of moral gymnastics have we done to reach this conclusion? Why don’t we care?
Perhaps it’s disingenuous for me to take a stance of ambivalence after being treated to a weekend in Bend. Perhaps not. It could be how I felt all along.
If a brewery, both in professional and personal capacity, can remain true to themselves and authentic and transparent about their entire operation, and make beer that people – most importantly, you – want to drink, shouldn’t that be all that matters?