Good Beer Hunting

So, Knives Out — Why Beer Culture Needs to Simmer, Not Boil

During the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference state of the industry address, Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza was attempting to bookend his colleague's—chief economist Bart Watson—data-heavy presentation with something a little more light hearted. “Beer is fun” read one of his slides.

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He then said it out loud, which produced a wave of stifled groans from the 4,000-strong crowd. After the address was over, a little lighthearted mocking ensued. Of course beer is fun—it’s beer! Why did he feel the need, then, to remind the gathered crowd at the largest beer industry conference in the world of this?

Gatza may not be a soothsayer, though the data provided to him by Watson undoubtedly gives him an advantage in this respect. However, in light of the past few weeks in beer, which by my perception have been heated and frenetic, I’m thinking he might have been on to something. Beer is fun. And I think that we could do with reminding ourselves of this every once in a while. Lest our culture begin to eat itself from the inside out.

Over the past month I’ve seen folks both inside and outside the beer industry tear each other to shreds. From a sexism debate that feels like it has genuinely made real progress, to crackpot conspiracy theories of why brewery employees are moving on within the industry, to ethics in beer writing and the fact that many people assume beer writers don’t have any. Some of these conversations have been downright brutal.

This is nothing new, of course. Every industry and its surrounding fandom has its own set of conflicts and resulting squabbles. Perhaps the biggest difference between beer and other industries, however, is how much of an overlap there is between the two. So many people close to beer might, rightfully so, feel connected to the beer industry in a way that allows them to communicate as if they were a part of it. I certainly do. But I see a constant lack of due diligence given to the people who do work and earn a living from making, selling, or talking about beer. Far too often do people’s livelihoods come second place for the sake of someone winning an argument on Twitter.

Sometimes anger is a necessary vehicle. The explosive debates on the inherent sexism, racism, and homophobia that blights the industry are evidence of this. You can only ask nicely so many times without anything happening before you break. Nice is seldom a precursor to change. And the beer industry definitely needs to change. I worry, though, that some folks might see anger used successfully in this regard and perceive it as a way of winning conversations in other areas of the endless beer debate.

I worry about the constant splitting of hairs when we try and discuss the fraught topic of ethics in beer writing. Too often do I see people quick to criticise how a publication funds itself (indeed, how it pays its team of writers, photographers and designers), unable to separate their own twisted reasoning from the actual content being produced. It shows a complete lack of respect to the people who work hard and make a living from producing this content. In turn, it shows a lack of respect for themselves.

I worry that the occasional bit of juicy brewery news—the latest closure or set of layoffs or infected batch—often leaves people too hungry for more of the same. The tinfoil hats are donned these days at the mere glimpse of a headline. Even if the story doesn’t satisfy the lust for conspiracy, this doesn’t seem to stop people from generating wild theories of their own. Heck, I’ve even seen a new London brewery attempt to launch itself this month by presenting conspiracy theory as fact. It’s constantly disheartening to see this. It does nothing but make me want to disengage from those that pervade it.

I worry that, despite all the powerful debate surrounding the lack of inclusivity within beer and the progress being made, that too much of the conversation is being propagated by the wrong voices and spread ever thinner. Instead of a platform being created for the most potent and relevant voices, everyone is scrambling to the soapbox, desperate to be heard. I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I don’t see enough time and consideration going into how people support this conversation. We need to be mindful that we don’t wash away the efforts of the past few weeks by drowning out victories in the din of conversation.

We can do better. I don’t want to say beer people are good people. The very notion of this is ridiculous. Human beings, by our nature, are awful. But I am saying beer people could be better people. If we put as much effort into being mindful of the conversations we have as we have into the spitting up of bile these past few weeks, we might just make some genuine progress once in a while. I’m not saying that conversations need to stop, but we need to take beer off the boil and bring it to a gentle simmer. It's fun, after all.