Americans love decrying hypocrisy. It’s a pastime that predates baseball and is perhaps an irreducible component of our national character: the exultation of calling out this leader or that organization for treading venally on the principles they once purported to champion is, let’s be honest with ourselves, pretty exhilarating. Particularly when the once-principled party made such a righteous and self-aggrandizing show of performing those principles.
So it was with a bit of schadenfreude that many in the beer community watched as BrewDog, a successful marketing company with a lucrative sideline in beer, unceremoniously announced in the middle of last weekend that 22% of their antiestablishment multinational corporation had been acquired by TSG Partners, a private equity firm that is part owner of Pabst, unapologetic purveyor of “fizzy, yellow so-called ‘beers.’”
Strange bedfellows, especially for a company who’s gone so far as to de-brand collaborations with breweries for the mortal sin of falling prey to acquisition. “The deal is designed to deliver long-term capital with 10 year time horizon,” punk and corporate officer James Watt of BrewDog noted – just like in the Mekons song!
Pointing out that BrewDog has made a fortune by marketing themselves as iconoclastic upstarts battling the entrenched Big Beer hegemony is nothing new. They, like so many others – Lagunitas and Stone Brewing, to name a couple – have long employed aging and increasingly irrelevant rhetorics of DIY authenticity to precisely position their products.
As these companies grow, prosper, and employ more and more people, they become less and less like the scrappy startups they once were (or believe they once were) and more like conventional large companies focused on growth, profitability and expansion. But their roots in craft brewing means that many of them attempt to preserve a kernel of their countercultural authenticity, either as symbolic totem or as aggressive brand ethos.
There is a meaningful difference between believing your industry is different (and consequently acting in accordance with how you believe those differences manifest in the day-to-day realities of your business) and cynically building a marketing platform on the disingenuous proposition that your business is not a business, but a ‘movement’ or a ‘revolution.’ Revolutionaries don’t sell 22% of the revolution at £1billion valuation to major investors in Vitamin Water.
But that’s okay: maybe this is an opportunity for us all to talk about these things like grownups, using the immortal science of dialectical materialism.
It’s not unusual to see former supposed fans of these breweries swear them off entirely after the dirty deed is done.”
The political economy of beer today is such that capital is in the midst of a great consolidation. The falling rate of profit, and the inability, for the most part, to wring any more surplus value from beer’s already-exploited labor force, means that consolidation is one of the last paths to growth available to the largest market actors.
This consolidation takes many forms: sometimes it’s outright acquisition, as in the case of Constellation Brands and Ballast Point, or AB-InBev and 10 Barrel; sometimes it’s selling a portion of the company to a venture capital or private equity firm, as both Dogfish Head and now BrewDog have done. Often these mergers and acquisitions are met with loads of self-righteous opprobrium on the part of the craft consumers and partisans (and there but for the grace of god go BrewDog themselves!) – it’s not unusual to see former supposed fans of these breweries swear them off entirely after the dirty deed is done.
Which brings us to Matt Osgood’s recent piece for this magazine, “On 10 Barrel, Selling Out and What Really Matters.” Matt was part of a press junket recently organized by 10 Barrel’s parent company ABI (also, through their venture capital wing Zx Ventures, an indirect investor in this very publication) to visit the Bend, Oregon brewery and report back on (presumably) how little had changed since the acquisition.
Matt acknowledges that craft’s anti-corporate dogma would dictate that he should find his story of a deracinated and compromised former-craft brewer ready made, but concludes that the truth lies somewhere off that neat mark: in his eyes, the core of what 10 Barrel is (or was) persists in the glass, on the plate, and in their “ability to remain true to themselves and authentic and transparent about their entire operation.”
I’ve written elsewhere about the myth of authenticity – the very notion that there is an authentic core to our experiences, some immutable truth that can be either guarded and cherished or exploited and betrayed, is structurally analogous to the increasingly irrelevant macro/craft dichotomy, and in fact undergirds and reinforces it: "Authenticity is a lie that makes one believe that a beer that came out of a PET fermenter in a repurposed warehouse two towns over is somehow innately superior to one that was created through insanely advanced technological alchemy in a sparkling modern production facility. And it is a valuable marketing tool for local craft brewers and hegemonic beverage cartels alike.”
Certainly it’s been very valuable to BrewDog. What BrewDog is selling isn’t really beer – it’s a figural authenticity that derives from their supposed principles and their roots as small ‘garage’ brewers. One needn’t look very long or very deeply to discern how shallow this trope really is. But what is it saying? Why is it useful?
Matt Osgood’s article is, I think, ultimately trying to answer this question. What is it that makes us almost instinctively shun the corporate and praise the artisanal? Perhaps the most basic objection to consolidation and acquisitions is that they stifle creativity. James Watt, speaking of Camden Town Brewery’s acquisition by ABI in the much headier age of December 2015, put it thus:
"The first thing that will change at Camden is their cost of goods. Just by being owned by AB-InBev the beer duty Camden will pay on a 50L keg of Hells will instantly increase by around £20. On their current production numbers (quoted at 65,000 HL this year) the difference between full duty and half beer duty is approximately an extra £2.7m of beer duty annually.
To put this into perspective, in their last financial year Camden made £319k of profit. So all of a sudden Camden have much, much higher beer duty costs and they also need to generate significantly more profit to give AB-InBev a return. Something will have to give. No prizes for guessing what it will be.”
This is what one might term the Market Purist Objection; that is, it takes exception to consolidation on the grounds that increased pressure from above to maintain profitability will result in production short cuts, cheapening of process and ingredients, etc. And as objections go, it’s not a bad one: the deracination of style and diminution of flavor are both real and historical dangers facing the overall beer industry.
Naïveté lies in believing that there is a competitive and scalable business model to be extracted from that hermetic core.”
This vision of craft beer holds that the preconditions for creative experimentation are dependent on the specific and unique qualities of craft beer as an industry; Qualities that include openness, collaboration, and to some extent a disregard of the profit motive in favor of new modes of expression and production.
This last point is key, because it ultimately frustrates the attempts of BrewDog, Lagunitas, et al to press their supposed reserves of authenticity into the service of marketing: a measured disregard for the profit motive is not infinitely scalable, and founders on the rocks of the market sooner or later.
The notion that the unfettered free market will produce the greatest variety of and consumer access to flavor is as utopian as the belief in the atomized, hermetic artisan reveling in creation irrespective and ignorant of market forces.
And yet, to the extent that there is an authentic core in craft brewing, it lies precisely there, in the figure of the brewer creating for creation’s sake. Naïveté lies in believing that there is a competitive and scalable business model to be extracted from that hermetic core, and that it can be organized and deployed in the ways that our most marketing-savvy "countercultural" breweries would have us believe: that authenticity derives from who we are not what we do. This is of course just bourgeois metaphysics. We are only what we do.
So the mythology goes: 10 Barrel started life as the collective enterprise of idealistic artisans, and through acquisition has become but a corporate handmaiden. But does it matter? As Matt Osgood asks, if they’re making beer we enjoy, does it matter who made it?
I’d argue that, yes, at some level, it does matter – having curiosity about where something you enjoy comes from, who made it, and how, are all good things. Without them, we’re merely passive consumers. Your experience of something doesn’t need to be limited to whether or not you like it, or how many stars you assigned it on Untappd: by fostering a little curiosity, you can learn something about that brand, about the business, about beer itself.
You, then, can determine if you’ve been sold a bill of goods or just a good beer. The business of beer (like any other) is extremely complex, and oversimplified rhetorics that cast this business as a Manichean struggle of Good Independents vs. Evil Corporations are merely more marketing strategies.
Anyone claiming to be above the fray by dint of their DIY bona fides is full of shit, and will always be revealed as such in time. And anyone telling you otherwise is selling you something.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.