Those who follow me on Twitter might have seen this off-the-cuff 140 characters:
For most people, “tastes good” is pretty simple and so is “unethical business practices:” don’t use slave labor, don’t be Enron, don’t kill puppies, etc. You’re reading a beer blog, though, so you’re not most people. After sending that tweet, the more I thought about how to define “unethical” the more irritated I got (yeah, I totally hate my own brain sometimes).
What’s shady to one person may be perfectly fine to another. It’s also not like breweries are walking around shouting “LOOK AT ME BEING DODGY!” so it can be hard to separate fact from rumor from slander. And if you think unethical practices are limited to Big Corporate, you’ve got another thing coming. Beer isn’t a particularly dirty business compared to some others, but when someone says “everyone in the beer industry is so nice!” I know that person hasn’t been around the industry for very long.
Only you can decide what breweries (or airlines, or grocery stores, or coffee beans, or….) you feel good about supporting, and I have more questions than answers, but here are some things I’ve been considering.
Big kids bullying small kids. It’s an easy argument to make that the big guys can dominate smaller breweries through lobbying, lawyering, and sheer buying muscle rather than, say, making decent beer. It’s pretty much the plot of the documentary Beer Wars. Even if you take small brewers’ accusations with a grain of salt, there’s no arguing the big guys have a marketing budget that does not encourage a level playing field. (Case in point)
I think a lot of us in locavore, hipster (yeah I said it) places like the Bay Area enjoy supporting the little guy just because he’s little, or the local guy just because he’s local. That’s not a perfect solution — small and local don’t automatically mean good — but it’s a philosophy that allows you to eliminate the big corporate breweries from your life without too much fuss. It’s certainly easier and cheaper to keep big beer out of your fridge than it is, for example, to avoid clothes made in China.
Truth in advertising, “crafty” style. Something else beer dorks like me have been arguing about lately is the so-called “craft vs. crafty” problem (it’s not a new issue, but a recent press release from the Brewers Association fanned the flames all over again). Long story short, big breweries are trying to cash in on the “craft” market even though they still own the other 9 out of 10 or so beer sales in the country. The classic example is Blue Moon stating its brewer as “Blue Moon Brewing Company” rather than Coors; one of the more prominent recent examples is Third Shift. I already don’t drink Blue Moon or Shock Top because I don’t like them, but if this is a moral dilemma for you here’s the original craft vs. crafty statement and googling the phrase can get you a lot more on it.
One interesting wrinkle to this debate is Goose Island, a smallish brewery in Chicago that is now
about half fully owned by ABInBev. This stuff actually tastes good. Do you want to buy it? I dunno. Did you still buy Ben & Jerry’s after it got bought by Unilever? Listen to bands after they get signed by major labels? Is it the same thing? I don’t know, but I do know it won’t be the last time a tasty small brewery gets bought up.
Here’s the other thing: who among us, other than the most hardcore beer weirdos (guilty), wants to memorize a list of brands owned by AbInBev? I would argue that it’s bar and store owners, managers, and buyers who have the responsibility to know who owns what and make choices that benefit their community, not a megacorp in Belgium. I’ve been the bartender explaining the absence of Blue Moon et al…it’s news to most drinkers. Some don’t care but some are happy to have received the information. Arguably if you do beer for a living in 2013 education is part of your job whether you like it or not.
I should point out that even having a choice between big brands and mom ‘n’ pop breweries makes you a lucky beer drinker indeed. There are still beer deserts out there where Blue Moon really is the tastiest beer you can buy. Sadness.
Truth in advertising, contract brew style. Contract brewers do not own a brewery, technically they own a brand that someone else brews, though levels of brewing involvement vary by contractor. For most people, the debate over this stuff is too “inside baseball” to even worry about, but some in the beer community take the rightness and wrongness of contract brewing practice pretty seriously.
Without getting TOO deep into the can of worms that is contract, I think at minimum you should truthfully state where your beer is brewed somewhere on your packaging (if you bottle) and online properties, or you’re doing kind of what CoorsMiller does with Blue Moon. Your house is not your brewery. Your business office is not your brewery. Where the beer is brewed is your brewery. Not everyone cares, sure, but not everyone reads nutrition facts either and we still want those to be accurate.
Which begs the question, SHOULD we care? Beyond the question of transparency and disclosure, does it really matter where beer is brewed? Yes and no. On the “no” side, the breweries that produce contract brew still employ people and for all you know are making good beer. On the other hand, freshness does matter for many beer styles, so if a brewery with a mailing address in LA is really making its beer in Kentucky, Angelenos arguably have a right to know. But what if a beer you think is being made in Town A is really being made 5 minutes up the road in Town B? Freshness isn’t affected, do you still care? Now let’s say a beer you think is made in an underdog town like Detroit is really being made in an affluent town like nearby Ann Arbor…now do you care?
Forget geography for a minute. Some people get concerned about how much the “brewer” gets his hands dirty on brew day versus handing over a recipe and peacing out. If this is important to you, do some research and find out. But be aware that many “brewmasters” don’t do much (or any) shift brewing anymore either.
It’s tricky. I have several horses in all the races, since I know and like contractors, people who work at breweries that brew for contractors, and production brewers who dislike contracting for perfectly valid reasons. (Here’s a taste of the last point of view). I’d like to see more production breweries built, but I’m not going to boycott contract brew on principle. Your mileage may vary.
It’s not exactly payola, but it’s not exactly not payola. I honestly don’t know much about it, but there’s apparently a lot of sketchy stuff that happens in the battle for tap space at bars. “Rolling” kegs is giving away free kegs to get on your beers on tap, which smells fishy *and* puts smaller, broker breweries at a disadvantage. Free swag is a less obvious but still controversial form of getting in good with bars. Some folks wouldn’t believe these things go on among — gasp! — “craft” breweries, but I’m assured it goes.
I’ve not seen any real reporting on this, just heard some off-the-record tales, and even that is more info than the average non-industry beer drinker has to go on. When you hear this sort of thing, do you stop drinking the beer in question? Do you wait to see it firsthand (even though most of us never will)? I have no answers…just a few breweries I like that I now feel slightly awkward about liking.
Does ethics extend to personal politics and preferences? If you’re liberal, do you want to buy from a company that donates to the Republican party? (And vice-versa?). Should you buy a beer whose label objectifies women? I have a friend who’s strongly against canned beer due to the nasty process involved in mining the aluminum, and while I settle for recycling the cans, it does make me feel a little funny.
What about personal peeves? I’m personally against how litigious our society has become, and you don’t need to be a big corporate brewery to call a lawyer over nothing. Yeah, I stopped drinking Lost Abbey beers for a while when they lawyered up over Moylan’s use of an ancient symbol that I would say no one owns. (These days, I’m more likely be cautious about Lost Abbey because their beers can be overpriced and inconsistent). As more breweries open up, beer names and logos are going to become more scarce and lawyers are going to get increasingly overinvolved. Should I give a damn?
What is the owner of a certain brewery is a jerk? What if the brewer cheats on his wife, or doesn’t tip the waiter, or has three DUIs? Where does your own idea of right and wrong come into where you spend your money? How much can you ever know about the people making products you enjoy, even in a small industry like craft-or-whatever beer? How much do you even want to know? As someone who at times has been neck-deep in beer industry TMI, let me say that ignorance can be bliss.
Furthermore, what’s the statute of limitations on being a schmuck? Coors was famously anti-gay in the 80s but spent the 90s tripping over itself to prove it wasn’t homophobic. Their beer doesn’t taste good to me, but is it still a hate crime?
Are you consistent with this, or applying it just to beer? It’s impossible to be ethical in every purchasing decision, and perhaps that’s why beer nerds get so hung up on it: it’s the business we know the most about, so it’s a way to feel like our dollars are going towards friendly local artisans and not evil megacorporations exploiting Chinese 8-year-olds. Making ethical buying choices about one product is one product more than most people manage. Is it enough? Probably not. Can we be experts on everything and make every dollar spent an awesome one? Not if we have to work or, you know, have lives. Again, this is where beer buyers for stores and bars have a responsibility to do what *they* think is right for their customers.
Vote with your wallet, but no one dies if you vote wrong. I have general guidelines for what breweries I choose to support, but they’re dictated somewhat by circumstance because in the end it’s just beer and I’m just one person. I’m a heavy drinker by American standards, but my choices alone are not enough to tilt any scales. That said, I still avoid beers made by the big breweries because I think they’re bullies and I’d rather support beer made in my community. The Budweiser plant in nearby Fairfield, CA surely creates some good jobs around here, but I don’t like the stuff so it’s a moot point.
But you know what? If offered a beer from a tasty corporate-owned brewery (say, Goose Island) and a local beer that sucks, I will take the corporate beer that tastes good. You’ve got to earn my patronage, not default to it by geography. In the end, beer drinking is a hedonistic pastime. I owe the world a thoughtful decision, but I also owe my mouth a high-quality beer. Fortunately there is a lot of good local beer where I live so it’s not a dilemma I’ll often have.
I rarely solicit comments, but I really would like to hear what you think if you’ve read this far. Plus it would be nice to get some comments that aren’t spam. To chime in privately, email email@example.com. Cheers.
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