Happy Independents Day

The kettle at Cantillon

The notion of brewing independence, once at the heart of craft brewing’s identity, has become contentious and fraught in recent years as consolidation has come to many of the largest and most successful companies. The debate has shifted to one that feels quasi-moralistic, which feeds emotion in both sides.  

Let’s set that aside. There are a few very good reasons for everyone who likes beer to celebrate the independent breweries. Independents are often the keepers of tradition. A distant example is an instructive one. For years, Lars Garshol has been documenting farmhouse brewing in and around Scandinavia. Like everywhere else, national beer companies long ago turned the beer market nearly monochrome with mass market lagers. Yet in hidden pockets around the region small producers, home brewers, informal nanobrewers, and even a few full-fledged commercial brewers have kept alive traditions stretching back hundreds of years. 

In countries like Britain, Belgium, and Germany, family breweries were the ones that kept cask bitter, gueuze, and rauchbier alive. And for styles that didn’t make it, you can find a sad tale of the road running to the end of a family brewery’s life, the last practitioner of that tradition. 

In the cellars at Fuller's.

But it’s not just tradition: independent brewers are also the incubators of change. In the United States, the new beers that helped transform the landscape from the 1970s to now were all independent—and that’s still the case. The most recent phenomenon of hazy IPAs emerged from the conditioning tanks of small breweries content to experiment and make quirky, nichey beer. They made a lot of stuff that didn’t resonate with customers, but this trend did, and only after it demonstrated commercial viability did corporate breweries embrace it.  

We can remove the moralism and simply observe this dynamic—small, independent breweries as preservers and inventors, national breweries as popularizers—and note that, in its absence, things go sideways. The beer landscape is healthy when these two tracks are in equilibrium. But of the two, the independents are the most vulnerable. The headwinds blowing at independents in terms of structural disadvantage, long hours, modest profits, and generational change make their long-term existences tenuous. And we lose so much when they start vanishing.

So to those scrappy, determined, offbeat, and traditional independent breweries out there, I salute you. You make beer fans’ lives richer and more interesting. 

Hazies at Bissell Brothers in Portland, Maine.