The Soul of Beer

After yesterday's surprising news that Anheuser-Busch had acquired Bend's 10 Barrel Brewing, I wrote a post for All About Beer discussing some of the implications.  I was trying to make two main points: 1) there's no benefit for A-B in dumbing-down 10 Barrel's beer--they purchased the brewery because it makes such good beer, and 2) that this kind of thing is the way of things in mature markets, so we should expect more. 

If beer has soul, does that make Jean Van Roy God?
The reactions on Facebook to that post are worth a read--and were totally enlightening. According to a preponderance of the comments, my points weren't just wrong, they were heresy:  "Beer with no soul is not beer I care to drink" and "I say we see one more brewery who made a devil's bargain and lost the appeal of those who supported ... them."

This is absolutely fascinating to me because it illustrates the degree to which people relate to beer not as a widget produced by a business, but something of a higher calling.  Let's do a thought experiment, and keep in mind the notion of souls and devils as we do it.  A group of DIY-ers start a small business that makes an innovative, creative, and well-made product.  Because they're a start-up, sales are small and the principals are earning enough to keep going, but they're not getting rich.  A large company comes along and offers to buy the business and infuse it with money.  They will keep the principals on to continue making their product and selling it to a now much-larger audience.  Think about how people would respond if that business were:
  • A Portland shoe company acquired by Nike;
  • A Chicago comic-book publisher acquired by Marvel;
  • A San Francisco software company acquired by Apple.  
It's hard to see how the outrage would be the same, yet shoe fans and comic book fans and tech fans are all passionate.

I'm not trying to make any bigger point here.  Even though I no longer hold the view, I'm not entirely sure the idea of a beer with soul is wrong.  We all live in the bubble of our own experience.  I've spoken to brewers like Jim Bicklein at Anheuser-Busch, and his excitement and commitment to the beer he brews is no different than Jean Van Roy's (Cantillon) or Dan Carey's (New Glarus) or Matthias Trum's (Schlenkerla).  My bubble has been formed by interacting with all of them.  

But there are other bubbles out there, where people have different relationships to this thing we all love. One of the reasons we're in a golden age of beer is because people do feel this level of passion.  Those who were outraged by  A-B's purchase of 10 Barrel will help keep small, independent breweries in business, and I can certainly sign up for that.  If they had felt this passionate about beer 50 years ago in Belgium, dozens of old, quirky breweries wouldn't have gone out of business and would still be around making traditional, sometimes world-class beer.  Passion is good.

Actually, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure beer does have soul.  I just subscribe to a slightly different religion: I think all beer has soul.  Well, maybe not Natty Light.