The Politics of Buying Your Beer

Do you avoid certain beers because you don't like them, or because you don't like the brewer?

I wouldn't go as far as to call myself a strongly political person but I do I have certain standards, ethics and principles which I live my life by. For instance, I prefer to buy goods and services from smaller, independent suppliers whenever I can rather than from bigger companies and chains. I've been in business myself so I have a certain bias towards the small trader.

I know that more often than not I'm going to end up shelling out more money by patronising the smaller business than I would if I went to the big box, but for me it's a price worth paying to support someone who has enough of the entrepreneurial spirit to chance their arm in the world of business, sink some of their hard-earned into a venture and invite the world to give them the benefit of the doubt. Some of these fine people prefer to stay small, others want to grow. Let's face it, most of the big corporations we know today started off decades, even hundreds of years ago as one or two people and a shop, or more recently a garage. Big trees from little acorns, and all that.

Sometimes it's just plain exhilarating to buy small because you're part of a movement, like that time in the post-punk era of the late 70s and early 80s when a lot of bands were rejecting the wiles of the big labels and either putting out their own singles or signing to upstarts such as Mute, Rough Trade, Step Forward, Small Wonder or any one of the dozens of independent labels that sprang up, many of which sank without trace and are now highly collectable, but a satisfyingly large number of which are still in business (and still independent).

However, I temper my desire to favour the small businessman and woman over big business with a degree of pragmatism because I know that there are many things, such as the ability to be online right now and typing on this computer, which I would have to forego if I renounced the products of corporations entirely (I built the PC myself but corporations manufactured the parts I made it from). Whenever you take a stand you have to decide where you're going to draw that line in the sand, the one that delineates what you will and what you won't do. We couldn't have modern society as we know it without the resources that big business puts into the research and development of new products. Sometimes it benefits us, sometimes it has unforeseen consequences, but the quality of life has improved beyond all measure because of it (qualifier: not for everyone involved). The only way you can completely avoid it these days is to go and live in a cave, grow your own vegetables, forage for nuts and berries in the hedgerows and hunt for meat with a bow and arrow you made yourself. I must admit, there are days when that kind of lifestyle seems quite attractive, but if I broke a leg or had an infected wound I'd be hightailing it back to the grid pretty smartish for some of that modern hospital treatment.

What has this all got to do with beer?

This story from Business Week recently stirred up a debate in the beer geek forums and made for some interesting reading, both in the article itself and the conversations about it. A thread that focuses on the megabrewers would normally generate dozens of comments explaining in very few words how the writer would never drink "BMC swill" because "it SUX!!!", but not this time. Oh, there were one or two pointless posts of that nature, but the discourse was actually quite rational and intelligent, for an internet forum.

Disclaimer: I generally don't drink beers such as Bud, Miller, Coors, PBR etc unless there's no alternative (and sometimes not even then), mostly because of what my taste buds tell me, but also for the handful of reasons described above and many others besides.

I don't know what the official description of a small business is but I imagine it applies to all the Austin breweries, whose beer I drink and enjoy on a regular basis, daily, even. I doubt that any of them employ more than 20 or 30 people; most of them probably don't even get into double figures, and they brew the kind of beer that I want to drink, which is a good enough reason on its own for me to spend my money with them rather than with a megabrewer whose beers I don't care for, but just as importantly they brew it for what I consider the right reasons, and you can apply the same criteria, slightly modified, to most sole traders or small business owners who are content to stay relatively small and have no desire to become the next Wal-Mart or Anheuser Busch. I could list things like doing it for the love of it, wanting to create the best product they can, being creative, not cutting corners, etc, but when you boil it all down and get to the heart of the matter they're not simply brewing good beer, they're effectively providing a service to the community of beer drinkers, although they might not realise it. That's what you do when you put the quality of your product and the satisfaction of your customers first because of a genuine desire to do the right thing for the greater good.

But what about the bigger craft brewers such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Lagunitas? How big do they have to get before they're just another megabrewer? In this case, size doesn't necessarily matter. Last year the Brewers Association had to revise its definition of how much beer a craft brewer can produce in a year because the Boston Beer Company had reached the previous limit of two million barrels, but they were still considered a craft brewer according to the Brewers Association's fundamental principles of what a craft brewery should be, and as long as they keep to those principles they'll have my support and a share of my money. If they want to save money by selling the company's Lear Jet (or not getting one in the first place) I'm in favour of that, up to a point - rewarding your employees is an important part of any successful business, just don't let it turn into a gravy train. But if they start saving money by lowering the quality of the product (or taking that one olive out of the jar) they've lost me as a customer. There was much emphasis in the Business Week article about ABInBev's cost cutting and how it was affecting the quality of the beer, although one wag answering a post about the declining IBU level of ABInBev's beers said "Well, half of almost nothing is approximately the same as almost nothing". That almost sounds like a Douglas Adams quote!

If asked to single out one factor with which to argue my case (apart from the beer/product/service itself), I think I'd have to say that it's the personal touch. I prefer the genuine welcome you get from someone who knows you and has become an acquaintance (or even a friend) because you walk into their shop every week, over the plastic smile of generic customer service and the 'Hello' that's shouted from someone who has never clapped eyes on you and is standing yards away at a checkout desk. If I'm going to greet someone I think we should be within conversational distance of each other, not half a shopfloor away. Call me old fashioned. Over the years that I've been ordering beer from the local brewers I've got to know all of them, and they know me. There's a strong feeling of belonging to something exciting in this community of brewers, beer buyers and bar owners, and a feeling of trust that so often seems to dissipate when a community (or a business) gets to a certain size and people no longer know each other so well. If you've moved from a small town to a big city you probably know what I mean.

I've deliberately left out some of the arguments that are often made when people are railing against big business because I'm not vehemently anti-corporate, there just isn't room for all of them here, and some of them are, frankly, irrelevant. Let's not forget that there's a wonderful place where you can go for that sort of thing: isn't lively discourse among friends just what the pub was made for?