Happy Independents Day
Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans. For the past few years, I’ve used this holiday to highlight the value of independent breweries, so let’s do it again. Independence has become a major bone of contention among smaller breweries who feel the pressure of corporate giants. It’s the subject of a major initiative by the trade organization representing smaller breweries and has become a bit of a moral issue. But where the dollars go is not the reason beer drinkers should care.
We celebrate the independents because they are the keepers of all those qualities we cherish as drinkers: they maintain tradition, but they also experiment with ingredients, techniques, and styles to push evolution forward. They make unpopular and expensive and quirky beers—and in doing so keep alive brewing traditions modern trends have left behind. As beer drinkers we are constantly looking for the best, most unusual, and newest beers—and our independent breweries are critical in keeping the market healthy enough to support those beers.
Large, mass market breweries are concerned with selling a lot of beer. They need to find beers that the largest number of consumers like. Their scale and integration make them the ultimate aggregator: the beers that are churned from their factories are proven winners. Big breweries can’t afford to make unpopular beers. Little breweries offer the inverse set of strengths. They can experiment on beer that has no obvious market. They make beer in small enough volumes and target small enough niches that a batch of beer is never much of a risk. That circumstance has led to explosive evolution and change. When you look at the developments that have characterized the craft beer era in the US, they all came from little independent breweries. We would never have seen a Mosaic-hopped IPA if we’d left the market to Anheuser-Busch and Miller. We wouldn’t have seen Mosaic hops, either.
Paradoxically, brewing traditions are also protected by little breweries that refuse to modernize, mechanize, and follow trends. In the second half of the 20th century, as mass market lagers began to dominate the world beer market, independent breweries kept traditional styles alive. Imagine where we’d be if the Lambic breweries had closed up shop as they were teetering on the brink 50 years ago? The whole enterprise of using wild yeasts may have lost to us. What if traditional brewing had died in Britain? What beer would those early breweries have made; would we have ever gotten to IPAs? Finally, when you pick up a book like the Beer Bible and read about beer styles, many of those exist because a handful of breweries survived that make those beers (in some cases it got down to a single brewery). Our list of styles is far smaller than it might have been—so many of the old ones have died out, victims of the wave of industrial lagers. The styles that exist to today have champions in small, independent breweries.
Little breweries have big opinions. Brewer-led breweries think about the beer, not the marketing campaign. The questions they ask relate to making the beer better or more characterful or more interesting. When breweries get bigger, particularly when they become global corporations, the thinking shifts to “liquid streams” and “product.” The companies are far too big to reflect the idiosyncrasies of a brewer’s vision. Many people are involved in every decision, no matter how small, so that all the quirks are smoothed out of the system. Global breweries can be optimized to make beer of exceptional quality; they almost never make the most interesting beer.
So on this Independence Day, as you lounge in the back yard with a beer and brat, raise your glass (or bottle or can) and salute the independents that have made this beer world such an interesting, rich one.