Indie Brewers

In 17 days, this here blog will celebrate it's tenth birthday. That naturally puts an old geezer like me in a nostalgic mood: ah, youth!, remember those salad days, back when I was a mere pup of 38!? It got me thinking that, in the 40-year scope of the modern American brewing revival, we really only came into modernity in the past decade. But it also gets me thinking about the future. If the past decade was the pivotal moment when American brewing came into focus both in terms of size and tradition, what then of the next decade?

I suspect it will all be about independence.

A recent blog post by Charlie Papazian brought things into focus for me. In it, he musters a hearty defense for the organization he founded and nurtured, arguing for the two, unrelated prongs that have long formed the confused mission of the Brewers Association (independence and "authenticity"). It's that second one that has never been very defensible. His post was inspired by the threat buy-outs pose to small breweries, and in restating the Brewers Association's mission, he inadvertently explains why these buyouts have been damaging. He writes of craft brewing: "It is a framework that defines a cultural view of the spirit of what it means to be craft brewer. In spirit it defines the cultural view of what a small and independent American brewer(y) is." All this business about craft and spirit and authenticity turns out to be dangerous business. It's vague and imprecise and ripe for plucking by large breweries.

An Indie brewery

But Charlie also describes something far more essential in this battle for the future. Independence is a status worth protecting. We have seen how things degrade in other countries with too much consolidation (or "rationalization," as the Brits say). Here Charlie's right on the money:

Without an organization that represents the interests of small and independent brewers their voice in the economic, technical, supply chain, distribution dynamic, retail dynamic would be totally dwarfed and overwhelmed.
This is the battleground of the next decade. The waters are already hopelessly muddled with regard to what "craft beer" is or what a "craft brewery" looks like. But an independent brewery? There's no ambiguity there. In the next decade, the vague, abstract talk of authenticity and craft will inevitably give way to the more concrete, pressing issue of independence and consolidation. Everyone will clamber to claim abstract virtues, but the marketplace will be defined by the degree of consolidation and variety. There are very good reasons to want a robust network of independent breweries competing with large, powerful interests--they're the ones Charlie listed. It's why we're seeing breweries like Yuengling and Schell now (rightly) placed on team "craft," and why the Brewers Association will focus more narrowly on independence in the future.

We have recently begun seeing this phrase "indie brewery" come into vogue. It's a good, clear term that dispenses with abstraction. Indie breweries may be big or small, and they may make good beer or bad, but you know who owns them. I anticipate using the term more often myself, and expect it to slowly creep into our regular lexicon. "Craft brewery" is meaningless. "Indie brewery?"--that's a very useful term.