Class and Culture in American Brewing
Last month, a massive firestorm engulfed year-old, Atlanta-based Scofflaw Brewing when owner Matthew Shirah posted an ill-advised rant on the company's Facebook page. In typical fashion, I completely missed it. This despite a well-linked article in Paste and another, just last week, on Good Beer Hunting. Well, no matter; there's nothing I could add that someone hasn't already observed. (If you missed the whole thing and are trying to catch up, Scofflaw's follow-up post is worth reading, too.)
What really interested me was Austin Ray's GBH interview with the brewery's founders, Shirah and his partner and Scofflaw's brewer, Travis Herman. In it, Shirah, who did most of the talking, surfaced an issue that doesn't get a lot of discussion: the role class and culture play among beer drinkers, brewery workers, and increasingly, among small breweries. Those themes seemed to be overlooked during the incident, but maybe with a month's reflection, we can return to them.
If we hearken back to the early decades of "microbrewing," we can paint a mostly-accurate portrait of the early founders: plucky but woefully underfunded dreamers who built their businesses on sweat-equity. There were outliers--Jim Koch, a Harvard MBA who blew off building a brewery in favor of contract brewing and a slick marketing approach--but for the most part, it's accurate. This was a big part of the mystique of the "little guys" who challenged big beer, and one promoted and burnished for decades.
And while it's true as far as it goes, there's another age-old truth that it conceals: the gulf between brewery owners and workers. Most of the people toiling in beer--pulling pints, delivering kegs, hauling grain sacks--are working-class. Owners are sometimes, too, but they're also the kinds of people with access to family funds or with the background and collateral to secure sizable loans. As companies grow and prosper, that gulf widens; the folks doing the pulling and hauling may get a bump in pay, the real rewards accrue to the shareholders. There's a we're-all-in-it-together ethos that pervades craft beer, but the "it" looks a lot different depending on where your office is located.
This tension infused the way Shirah spoke throughout the interview with Ray.
"We both came from trailer parks, one in Oklahoma, one in North Carolina.... We figured out we’d both been in handcuffs enough times to where we understood what the real-world was like. We weren’t spoon-fed Buckhead boys."
Buckhead refers to a wealthy enclave in Atlanta, one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the US. Shirah's point is clear. But it relates to a more subtle element within craft brewing that has really begun to open up in the past decade. For most of its existence, craft brewing was a relatively small-bore undertaking. It didn't attract serious money. That has changed, exacerbated by corporate buyouts. Where breweries were once undervalued relative to their investment potential, speculation has created absurd valuations and attracted obscene amounts of money. And that means that at the market level, it can feel like the pattern of trailer park and Buckhead is repeating itself.
"I feel a responsibility, similar to the way I spoke out, to let people understand the struggles of the small guy. Why not talk openly about the struggles of a small craft brewery? I don’t consider us to be a big brewery. I still sweep floors and clean toilets... A lot of the growth is coming from the guys that have been purchased by the disruptive growth funds, and it’s because they have resources that the small guys don’t have. And that needs to be exposed to a certain degree. I’m happy to talk about those things."
There has always been a disparity between well-funded and DIY start-up breweries. But now that millions of dollars slosh around the industry, it has become exaggerated, making it harder and harder for bootstrap operations to create visibility against well-funded competitors. Scofflaw's business was built in part on this dichotomy, but they are far from the first to feel its presence.
Class isn't the only thing Shirah broadcast in his comments--they contained a strong cultural valence as well. It is the same dynamic that has paralyzed the country for the past two years--the one we see when we turn on a football game or listen to news about the latest confederate monument. I heard it when Shirah started a thought this way:
It's impossible to hear the phrase "PC" without absorbing the heavy context it contains in our larger cultural wars. I don't know anything about the Scofflaw guys, and I don't want to speculate about their politics or why Shirah used the word. (Even if I did know them, I'd be reluctant to speculate.) The cultural moment, however, is one of retrenchment and tribalization. Shirah continued:
"You want me to walk and talk a certain way and be extra-special nice? Not gonna fuckin’ happen, man. I care about people and I show them in my own way. You can talk to the people that are around me. But because I grew up in a rough neighborhood, in a rough family, it created a certain type of person, and that’s the type of person that I am. “Professional.” That’s that corporate stigma, bullshit, game-playing political dance that people do when they’re not in charge of their own destiny."
In the Facebook posts that started this whole discussion, the comments are bracing (they were more ill-mannered in the second one). They're as raw as any I've seen on political threads--and many use the same language. It's similar to the class stuff, but seems to be directed at the classic hipster beer geek stereotype. There's a polarizing, attack-first posture among the comments. Those who support the brewery do so with gusto, and anyone offering critiques (fair or mean-spirited) is attacked. Supporting or critiquing the brewery becomes a matter of tribal affiliation.
The craft beer world--whatever that means--has outgrown a single culture. Like everything else in America, there are now rural drinkers and urban hipsters who like craft beer, wealthy and working class drinkers, male chauvinists and feminists--and every other permutation of culture we have in the country.
All the conflicts we have in culture generally are, inevitably, repeating themselves in pubs and on Facebook pages. I was surprised last year to see Yuengling wade into the presidential race, but it is no longer such an outlier. Businesses now routinely associate themselves with controversy. Scofflaw, to be absolutely clear, has made no political statements and I haven't a clue what their politics are. But the way they have positioned their brand, the way the speak publicly, and, particularly, the way some of their fans have joined the fray, speak to a particular cultural approach.
Scofflaw's initial comments don't really offer many lessons. Many young breweries make missteps they avoid with a little practice. But the way Scofflaw has approached craft beer is more unusual and far more intriguing. I expect we'll see more and more breweries deviating from the regular craft beer playbook, especially as craft beer becomes more mainstream and corporate. And I certainly hope they do: it's a lot more interesting.
ALL PHOTOS: SCOFFLAW BREWING