The Community Tendril of Craft

By Gerry Khermouch

With hundreds of new craft brewers coming into the category this year, it’s sometimes hard to imagine where craft beer can go from here. I’m not worried much about a dumbing down of the sector to the lowest common denominator as happened during an earlier boom in the 1990s: the beers emerging these days are at a high level of quality and sophistication. And there’s no question the demographic is expanding, with women deeply involved these days and ethnic minorities starting to clamber aboard. (At a recent home brewers’ event in New York I met a Dominican guy who’s planning to open the first production brewery in Harlem in many decades.) Beer drinking venues and occasions are expanding. So the demand side seems in good shape. Inevitably, though, the expansion of the biggest will leave them less tethered to their local roots, and high capital costs will force them to move a lot of liquid, potentially forcing down pricing and undermining the viability of the businesses. We’ve seen that movie before.

But for those who stay local, or at least regional, there are some great dividends beyond the fresh, inventive beers that are sure to result. Dividends not just to the brewers themselves but to all of us. Without getting too sentimental about the matter, I believe these dividends stem from the role small brewers play in lending texture to their communities, in a country where mass media and mass consumption have made most towns or city neighborhoods pretty much like every other one. That’s why I’m particularly excited about the nanos (nanobreweries) that have been springing up, and some of the collaborations we’re seeing, too.

True, community building is an often abused, self-serving phrase used by countless retailers and developers seeking support in the form of tax breaks, grants and zoning variances. In beer, though, I think it rings truer, because of beer’s role as a social lubricant, and the ability of pubs and restaurants to serve as third places, neighborhood hangs that offer a break from home or work, in the process adding life around the clock to retail districts and malls. It’s not coincidental that John Hickenlooper of Wynkoop Brewery could parlay his role as a pioneering publican in bringing Denver’s downtown back life into getting elected the city’s mayor and then governor of Colorado.

But Hickenlooper always was about community building, siting his brewpubs on struggling main streets in landmark redbrick buildings that would make for good gathering places. For most other brewers, that aim is less central to the enterprise, but real nevertheless. At a time that local retail is an endangered species because of the Internet and big-box rivals, breweries and brewpubs should be a tempting option for developers and urban planners looking to re-establish downtowns and Main Streets as vibrant community centers. Unlike other restaurants, brewpubs that package their beer can serve other retailers, further contributing to the sense of authentic place.

Fortunately local authorities and statehouses finally seem to be coming around from a neo-Puritanical view that regards breweries as a form of blight to one that recognizes their contribution to community building. There still is work to do to truncate onerous licensing requirements, and to allow the smallest brewers to self-distribute in their home markets.

The advent of nanos reinforces that trend, despite it sometimes being hard to take them seriously as real operating businesses. No question, despite the rhetoric of staying small and regional, some really harbor ambitions of becoming the next Boston Beer or Dogfish Head. No doubt some will break out. But those who don’t are tapped into a phenomenon that’s rich with potential for themselves as well as their retail partners and communities. Beyond one exciting trend, the collaborative brews produced by, say, Stone Brewing and other influential brewers like Firestone and 21st Amendment, brewers also are extending social filaments to a broader range of community institutions, such as local farmers, artisanal food producers, coffee roasters and retailers in a way that enriches the local culture. Not trapped by the burdens of heritage, American craft brewers are willing to go pretty far afield in their search for new associations, giving them a pretty rich palette from which to paint.

As I write this Brooklyn Brewery is unveiling Brooklyn High Line Elevated Wheat, drawing upon grains from New York State to produce a special beer for the newest stretch of New York City’s High Line elevated park, which is insisting on local sourcing for foods and beverages served at a temporary beer garden it has set up in a vacant lot at the northern terminus of the park. That’s place-making with a vengeance. A Brooklyn upstart, Sixpoint Craft Ales, has teamed with Stumptown Coffee Roasters for its Berserker Bock, Gorilla Coffee for Gorilla Warfare porter and Mast Brothers Chocolate for Sixpoint Dubbel Trouble. These cross-sector collaborations can go in both directions: Austin’s (512) Brewing uses regionally sourced organic pecans for its Pecan Porter, even as local chain Amy’s Ice Cream works the porter into its ice creams and the South Congress Café uses it to braise its ribs. It all adds a pretty intriguing layer to the craft beer mania that’s gotten all our attention.

 

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouch is executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.