The Unbearable Whiteness of Brewing Part 2 – Playing Golf, Making Sailboats, Starting Microbreweries, and Other Things White Dudes Do for Fun: The Microbrew Revolution as Entrepreneurial Leisure

A funny thing happened in the middle of writing this series…a twisted and convoluted series of unimaginable events.  I have started referring to them as ‘life.’  The occasion of life, as it has transpired over the many moons since I began this blog series has included a number of high points.  But, none as high as the completion of my doctoral dissertation, The Value of a Pint: A Cultural Economy of American Beer, and its successful defense.

So…where the first two entries of this blog series were understandably sophomoric (if somewhat charming), the remaining parts will certainly reflect the maturity and superior intellectual prowess that is embodied in the very utterance of those most elevated of sounds–“pee aich dee.”

Translation: I plan to be more 30% more sarcastic and roughly 47% more incendiary.

In all seriousness however, starting this blog series may very well have been the thing that gave me the momentum to complete what I very realistically consider to be my life’s greatest accomplishment (thus far).  Many of the ideas I hashed out in Part 1 were included in the fifth chapter of my dissertation and will hopefully soon be part of a fancy journal article.  In an nice kind of circularity, much of what I am about include in this blog post first appeared as Chapter 4 of my dissertation.  The two have a wonderful sort of parallel existence that gives me hope that I might be doing it right.

So, before I get started, I’d like to recommend that you read the Introduction of Sorts.  Not only will it tell you something about the inspiration for the series, but it will provide some “rules of engagement” as it were.  And then I suggest you make your way to Paper Bags, 40 oz Bottles, & Malt Liquor Sub-Brands. How Big Beer helped to Define Black Beer Culture. This will give you a sense of where I am going with all of this, or at least teach you a few things about 40s that you might not have known.

So let’s get to it…

From the Time of Mostly Yucky Beer…

“What is unique about Craft Beer?”

It’s a question that’s frequently asked, perhaps excessively asked, but ultimately a question that at least in part fuels the great cultural engine that is the Craft Beer movement.  The answers most frequently offered are not canned…exactly.  But, they have grown familiar, like an old pair of sweat pants.  You are utterly committed to them, you feel at home in them, but the novelty is gone and you certainly don’t need to trot them out in public.  The answers–the usual suspects at least–generally cite the beer itself (the integrity, creativity, and quality of product), the people (the largely unpretentious, welcoming, and remarkably enthusiastic drinkers of craft beer), or the industry (its smaller scale, ethos of collaboration, and eye for community engagement).

In this blog post however, I am taking an answer that is often left out of these discussions as my starting place. That is, the fact that in a relatively short amount of time Craft Beer has created and invested deeply in a founding mythology, a history of its origins that imposes something of a gravitational pull on the directions the industry takes on one hand, and obscures a number of important realities on another.

I am wading in dangerous territory, no doubt.  Some of you are tensing your jaws and breathing a little more shallow.  Some of you anticipate blasphemies are forthcoming.  You are actively formulating rebuttals.  These are the perils of messing with origin stories. 

Not unlike…well, a freakishly large number of Western  historical accounts, the Craft Beer Industry’s origin story is a hagiography of great men–a group of ‘founding fathers’ if you will.  Our beer stories have some of the most satisfying rags-to-riches narrative arcs out there.  They are stories of self-determination, individualism, risk-taking, and ultimately, success that will warm a star-spangled heart like few others can.  Though there are certainly others that might be included in this list, the genuinely pioneering efforts of Jack McAuliffe, founder New Albion; Fritz Maytag, pioneer of Anchor Steam Brewing Company; Ken Grossman, creator of Sierra Nevada; and Jim Koch, creator of Boston Brewing Company and the Samuel Adams Boston Lager tend to be held close to the core.  I want to suggest, however, that we’ve gotten a little sloppy in telling and retelling these stories and that this sloppiness has had some important consequences.

These ‘founding fathers’ share a number of commonalities, most noticeably a passion for good beer and dissatisfaction with commercial offerings that drove each to pursue the production of a different class of commercial beer.  But this blog focuses on another line of similarity, an approach to the business of brewing that I call entrepreneurial leisure.

For you definition loving types, this is straight out of the dissertation…BOOM:

Entrepreneurial leisure is the transformation of leisure (often subcultural pursuits) into businesses and occupations (Ides, 2009).  Fundamentally, then, entrepreneurial leisure involves a slippage between the meanings of work and leisure, and between consumption and production in modern capitalist economies.

(Always with the terminology J.)  I know, I know.  But I am using the terminology to make an important point. You are just going to have to keep reading and trust that I will eventually get there.

In the mean time: a quick reference to the times B.C.B. (before craft beer).  Most of the time, when we’re talking B.C.B., we refer to the general crappiness of the beer…obvi.  But, I’d like to draw a little more attention to industry structure, as this is what, in my opinion really set the table for a microbrew revolution, and the following the craft beer movement to dig its claws in.

In the years between the end of Prohibition (1934) and the founding of New Albion (1976), the brewing industry underwent one of the most unprecedented compressions seen in any American industry at the time.  Of course now with the formation of conglomerates like Comcast, its ridiculous number of holdings, dwindling competition, pending absorption of Time Warner, and ultimate goal to acquire the rights to the morning announcements in elementary schools everywhere, this is comparatively less impressive.  Still, the 20th century compression of the industry was unquestionably epic. It involved two related movements: contraction (meaning, fewer and fewer breweries operated) and consolidation (meaning, more and more of the national market share was dominated by a handful of top producers).  The homogeneity, standardization of product (aka the fizzy yellow light American lager), and an intense focus on marketing and branding made Budweiser, Miller, Coors and Pabst the largest beer brands in the U.S. and in the case of Budweiser and Miller, the world.  The uncanny extent of this standardization also left the door wide open for enterprising microbrewers to change the game completely.

Media giant, Comcast, announces its bid to purchase the rights to morning announcements at elementary schools across the nation. Well…basically.

With that very important precursor in mind, I am going to set out to do a couple things in the paragraphs that follow:

  1. First, I’ll provide a ridiculously short historical account of how people in the West came to understood leisure as the useless drunken uncle to the noble activity of work.
  2. Then, I’ll talk about entrepreneurial identity for a hot second.
  3. After that, I’ll establish entrepreneurial leisure as a kind of wonky slight of hand that pretty much established the tenor of the craft beer industry and managed to leave a lot of people behind the process.
  4. And for all the marbles, I’ll conclude that the brewing industry’s origin stories celebrate a group of seriously awesome guys as anti-‘big beer’ renegades who shattered the status quo of the brewing industry.  For the record, I think this is more than justified.  However, I also think those stories–the way they are told and retold–neglect to mention that it is also fair to say that the founding fathers of the craft brewing industry were white men of means and privilege who pushed aspects of white-collar managerialism, neoliberal self-determination, and a ethic of justificatory risk to an illogical extreme and found success–a pattern that was virtually unrepeatable for a person of color in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and continues to present challenges today.

How Leisure Lost its Groove

Words are pretty special.  Particularly because we tend to assume that the connection between words and their meanings are unremarkable, automatic, when nothing could be farther from truth.  The words work (or labor) and leisure are perhaps one of the more remarkable pairs out there, having maintained essentially opposite meanings, but having individually shifted and changed dramatically over time.  I know, weird.

Consider the fact there is no etymological record of the term ‘work’ in its modern connotations existing prior to the advent of the slave state in the ancient Greek empire.  Which suggests that until society REALLY started settling into the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ there wasn’t really any impetus to distinguish between human activity in this particular way.

But, with the establishment of the slave state came social stratification.  And with social stratification came the inevitable question–What kinda stuff can men of status do with the power to delegate the hard stuff to servile populations?  So, in the beginning when we (I’m using the word ‘we’ pretty loosely here) started kicking around these new terms, the condition of slavery defined work, and leisure came to be defined as a corollary condition—a freedom conferred by the ability to control others (Hunnicutt 2006).

Historians suggest that leisure was rampant among the privileged classes.  If you’ve ever seen that movie Caligula you already have a pretty wicked picture of this in your head.  Without the requirements of work (which at the time meant hard, manual, crappy, subsistence labor), the elite were inspired to ask—What are things worth doing in and of themselves?  Sport, fine arts, doing politics, making music, engaging in conversation, and according to the filmic wonder that is Caligula, sexy time, as leisure activities, became representative of Greek social life.  To this end, leisure was the glue that held Greek society together.

But with fall of the Greek society and the rise of the Roman Empire, people started to contemplate human existence in the natural world.  A simple, agrarian, frugal existence became an object of romantic imagination in both art and poetry (remember Virgil?).  Simultaneously, urbanization became increasingly synonymous corruption and fuckery of the worst kind.  So leisure stopped being an opportunity to enter the elite circles of civic life and rather became the opportunity to retreat from the crowd in the pursuit of solitude and simplicity.  This is important.  Leisure began to be less about public life and more about the interior life of the individual.

Christianity made two major contributions to modern notions of work/leisure, one from the Catholic side, one from the Protestant side.  Within the Benedictine Orders of monks within the Roman Catholic Church (who consequently also brewed a mean beer and were reportedly the first to cultivate hops for the express purpose of brewing), work became a means to the end of spiritual virtue.  Not long after, the Protestant Reformation reinforced this notion, by extolling the virtue of the “Protestant work ethic,” the belief that all people were called by God to work and that idleness was among the severest of early Christian sins.

Thus, as the Middle Ages came to a close, the significance of work and leisure had pretty much been reversed.  Work was super awesome, and working hard made a person totally holy and leisure was what the corrupt and godless were up to.  If there was ever a situation that was REALLY well-suited for the rapid adoption of capitalism as a cultural and economic system, this is it folks.

Economic Identities

Since all this went down, we’ve pretty much settled into capitalist modernity, and in a lot of ways our work (and to a lesser degree our leisure) have come to have an important role in shaping our identities.

Now…there is a great deal of theoretical mumbo jumbo I do not wish to drag you through.  So you are just going to have to have to take a couple of leaps of faith here.

Leap 1

We might say there is something called the identity of the “American Worker” that emerged right around the time the U.S. industrialized.  Unfortunately for this dude (who probably shleps to a factory for 12 hours a day), things for the “American Worker” kinda suck.  Machines start to make his skills obsolete and assembly lines start to make his job soul crushing…not to mention there’s some managerial a-hole standing over him with a stopwatch to make sure he doesn’t slack.  The “American Worker” in some ways can be seen as striving to retain a meaningful autonomy (via the retention and utilization of his skills) and failing pretty horribly.

You might have just noticed that I just said he.  That wasn’t an accident.  It is largely taken for granted that the American industrial worker was historically defined as a White male working 40+ hours per week.  Someone smarter than me adds, “Rather than being a universal, gender-free ‘individual’…the ‘modern worker’ is a male breadwinner who has an economically dependent wife to take care of his daily needs and look after his home and children …The stable public identity of the ‘modern worker’ is therefore established through the positioning of the woman as ‘other’ within the domestic sphere” (du Gay, 1996, p. 2).  

Leap 2

Remember that a-hole with the stopwatch?  We might think of that guy as another economic identity–the “managerial worker.”  Managerial identity is, in significant ways, defined in opposition to the identity of the American worker.  Whereas the worker, as the executer of tasks, comprises the bottom of the industrial food chain–the factory krill so to speak–managerial identity is defined by a capacity to execute bureaucratic, if not pedantic, managerial control.  So…managerialism is production-focused and rule-bound, but it does have a shiny veneer of supposedly greater freedom and creativity–at least that’s how the talk goes.

Leap 3

Entrepreneurial identity (this is where we’ve been heading all along) is described as anti-bureaucratic, self-motivated, competitive, autonomous, bold, energetic, creative, productive, innovative, and hella freaking awesome.  These traits, however, go a long way in justifying the aspect of entrepreneurial identity that is most important to my discussion here–a willingness and ability to shoulder risk and the tendency to understand that risk in the frame of personal responsibility.

If you think about it, entrepreneurial identity is a pretty profound reversal of managerial identity—insofar as managerialism is a kind of stewardship over the very aspects of organizational culture that represent constraints to be overcome by the entrepreneur.  Entrepreneurial identity also stands in stark contrast to the identity of the American worker, as both the champion of a character that is fundamentally ‘unmanageable’ and the embodiment of the losses of autonomy that define the American worker.

Thus, both in terms of business practice and organizational identity, the entrepreneur symbolizes the future of business, by charismatically displacing the now of business.

Okay You Can Stop Jumping Now

The history of the American brewing industry from Prohibition to the microbrew revolution saw this drama of antagonism between these three economic identities played out to the letter.  Skilled tradesmen and apprentices (from brewmasters to barrel makers) were replaced by general menial laborers.  They were in turn were subsumed by an exploding white-collar managerial force at the nation’s largest breweries (which as we discussed, were pretty much the only ones around after the mid-century).  You should read Julie MacIntosh’s Dethroning the King: The Hostile Takeover of Anheuser-Busch, an American Idol if you really want to get really good sense of the kind of bureaucratic assholism that was the status quo at AB.

The entrepreneurial microbrewer represented a really unique expression of entrepreneurship.  Insofar as the identity of the American worker and the entrepreneur are both defined by poo-pooing bureaucratic managerialism, there is something of a parallel between the unachievable desires of the brewery floor worker and the fulfillment of the successful microbrewer.  Where the worker is defined by a loss and desire for autonomy and creative self-actualization, the entrepreneur is defined by the self-directed realization of that autonomy.  Microbrewers not only shared the historic laborer’s disdain for the open corporatism of ‘big beer,’ they embraced the lost ethos of craft.

BUT…the microbrew revolution was far from a return to the identity of the worker as apprenticed craftsman.  The entrepreneurial microbrewer is not the American industrial worker reborn.  Rather this identity infuses the sympathetic parts of the identity of the American worker (mostly his sweet brewing skills and beard) with the privilege and power of entrepreneurial identity.

And for all the marbles…

The infusion referenced above has been performed within the narrative space of leisure, rather than work—imbuing the demanding physical requirements of the brewmaster’s trade with an element of choice, badassery, and even a bit of play.

The Stories we Aren’t Telling

So we might say that the entrepreneurs who ushered in the microbrew revolution found success by figuring out a kind of “valuable leisure” activity.  Their entrepreneurial leisure, though, was dependent upon an important pre-existing condition: namely, they possessed the means to occupy and thus successfully antagonize/subvert the managerial identities established for the brewing industry.  Nearly all of the notable craft beer entrepreneurs that are the subjects of our founding myths were in possession of University educations, specialized training, and/or successful careers in private industry.  But, rather than being established as necessary means to their success as entrepreneurs—assets that provided financial resources, the basis for credit and purchasing power, access to investors, expertise to navigate legal environments, technical knowhow, and more—these resources are instead cast in the light of personal sacrifice and heroic risk tolerance.

I would like to take a moment to remind us all about Rule 1 established in the Introduction to this series: “White people, nothing is your fault.”  That is, I am NOT trying to “blame” any individual people or any group of people for having privilege or being successful…that would be silly and I am too damned indebted to these folks for imaging a world where American beer-craft is worth a damn–a world where I hang my hat and tuck my slippers.  I am suggesting that telling their stories in the ways we have has obscured some very compelling reasons why the craft beer industry has the racial homogeneity that it does. Reasons that I think should be obvious, but seem to elude us when we pause to ask the question: “How did craft beer get so remarkably White?”

When we tell the story of Jack McAuliffe’s founding of the New Albion Brewing Company by focusing on how he very literally cobbled together a small scale brewery (when such equipment didn’t really exist), we rightfully recognize his resourcefulness and innovative spirit.  But when we leave out the fact that he was a military and University trained engineer (who welded submarine hulls for a stint),  who had the means to draw investors and purchase property in Sonoma, CA, and who was able to marshal enough resources to quit his ‘real job,’ we fail to see the important role that those kinds of educational advantages play.  More to my point, we fail to see how these advantages would not have been remotely possible for certain people between 1966 and 1976 , a time when most educational institutions were still struggling to desegregate (and many only doing so as a result of a court order).

Ultimately, New Albion did not succeed.  But even this is significant, as he was able to return to his first career as an engineer, designing industrial control systems.  McAuliffe is rightfully credited with developing the basic formula for the start-up and operation of a  small scale brewery.  However, the stories that have been told about his foray into microbrewing also developed a basic formula for the identity of the microbrewing entrepreneur–a well-educated, technically competent, problem-solver with enough resources to mitigate the substantial financial risk of launching an unproven new business.  The microbrew revolution’s quintessential entrepreneur was, thus, less a blue-collar ‘beer man’ who learned to play the business game and more a white-collar executive or fresh-faced college grad who was willing to get his hands dirty for the love of a hobby.

Similarly, when we tell the story of disparaged young Stanford graduate, Fritz Maytag, rescuing the Anchor Steam Brewery by securing 51 percent ownership in the brewery for “just a few thousand dollars” and slowly developing it into a West Coast mainstay, we are accurately recognizing the acumen of a man Inc. Magazine recent recognized as one of the “26 most fascinating entrepreneurs.”  But when we fail to mention Maytag’s Stanford pedigree and family heritage, we again may be leaving something out.  He is the great-grandson of Maytag Corporation founder Frederick Louis Maytag I.  And though I have never been able to determine whether or not, or to what degree, Maytag was assisted by financial contributions from his substantial family wealth, it does seem like many of the moves he made could have plausibly been “encouraged” by a greatly reduced fear of personal financial ruin.  Moreover, the ‘aimless college graduate buys brewery on a whim’ story contributes to the impression of the business microbrewing as one that is supposed to be fun.  But…honestly, how many of us can really afford to have that kind of fun? Right? Now imagine you are black and it’s the height of the civil rights era.

When we tell Jim Koch’s story by portraying him as an “average” guy who turned his back on the white collar grind, going door-to-door to offer samples of the old family recipe for a lager beer that he revived in his kitchen to Boston bars and restaurants, we are gratified by the ‘anyone can do this if they are just committed’ vibe of the narrative.  When we leave out that Koch holds a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Business Administration, and Juris Doctor from Harvard University and left a high-paying position as a management consultant, we again miss the tremendous assets he had at his disposal.  Even stranger, Koch’s departure from the Boston Consulting Group often overshadows the fact that he is the sixth-generation of first-born sons in an established German brewing family.  Remarkably, Koch’s founding of the Boston Brewing Company and development of Samuel Adams is largely retold as an heroic departure from the corporate world and pursuit of a passionate leisure activity—though it is more accurately a return to a family trade that has pre-Prohibition origins.

Lastly, Ken Grossman’s story begins with a cycling trip down the north coast of California (which really sounds like something in the neighborhood of that kind of “backpacking across Europe” self-imposed poverty that draws out the deepest of my cynicism–my apologies Mr. Grossman).  His narrative embodies the ground up, do-it-yourself ethic that has animated the opening of more than 2,500 small American breweries in the last 30 years.  Grossman also arguably possessed the least in the way of traditional ‘entrepreneurial assets’ and some of the most applicable hands-on experience in the making of beer of any of the men mentioned here.  He reportedly started his brewery with $50,000 in personal loans from friends and family…again, nothing to shake a stick at (and by the way, what in the hell do you shake sticks at actually?), as this is still a pool of significant wealth for many.  But, I think that the narratives of Grossman’s story have really helped to define the ethos of the contemporary craft brewer moving forward.

To Sum it All Up

My brief (and admittedly cynical) retelling of the biographies of the ‘founding fathers’ of the craft beer industry was not intended to minimize the significance of their individual accomplishments.  They ventured into an industrial climate in which the precedents for their business models were long forgotten.  They faced a number of practical and formidable constraints—small batch brewing equipment simply did not exist and had to be fabricated; few suppliers of ingredients made sourcing raw materials a challenge; banks and investors were skeptical of brewing operations that literally flew in the face of everything that was known about commercial beer.  It is important, however, to understand that the entrepreneurial leisure that underscored the microbrew revolution was dependent upon the possession (or at least the ability to possess) a white-collar managerial identity that could be abandoned and superseded by a romanticized entrepreneurial identity.  The fact that this new identity was steeped in the understanding of brewing as leisure generated a wealth narrative “street cred,” that in no small ways have contributed to the mystique of micro- and craft brewing as the rebellious careers of those who dare to pursue their passions.  But these narratives have also served to obscure what I think that are some pretty practical reasons why folks of color were not part of the microbrew revolution:

  • Educational resources of the kinds that assisted these entrepreneurs were largely unavailable to folks of color mired in a highly segregated education system.
  • Large amounts of personal or family wealth were generally not an asset held by people of color at the time.
  • Mortgage discrimination and other blatant acts of denying people of color loans or credit were still widespread in the mid-1970s.

But more than this--and I am kind of speaking from the gut here–I think that the ways that the business of starting a brewery is narrated, as a kind of impassioned, all consuming, physically demanding, but ultimately rewarding leisure activity, can be profoundly alienating for groups of people that have historically not had the means, been invited, or felt entitled to “play that way.”

Perhaps not as literal as the rules that kept pretty much anyone that wasn’t a white guy out of Augusta National Golf Club until recently, or as definitively cultural as playing polo, or as financially prohibitive as sailing yachts; starting up a microbrewery was and continues to be kind of a ‘white guy thing,’  This is, in my humble (but now Ph.D. enabled estimation…BOOM), not because folks ‘forgot’ to invite their Black friends to the party, but a product of the cultural situation (the same situation that had some pretty resourceful dudes inventing hip-hop on the other side of the country during those years).  Perhaps this is the optimist in me, but I hope that we are able to tell our origin stories in ways that are a little more attentive to these “situations.”  Not to detract from the astonishing contributions of our founding fathers, but to map out more pathways for entry for founding mothers and founding brothers.

Next Up >>> Part 3 – Closing Thoughts: Critique is Fun and all, But What Do We Do About This?