Dollars and Suds: How The Craft Beer Renaissance And The American Economy Intersect

Jeremy Cowan gives a tour of his Shmaltz Brewing, one of 400 new breweries to open in 2013,

Jeremy Cowan gives a tour of his Shmaltz Brewing, one of 400 new breweries to open in 2013,

Can we talk about the economy? No, I’m not going to rehash the President’s State of the Union Address or bemoan (again) the decline of wages for journalists (hey, at least I still have a job… more on that in a minute). Rather, I want to consider that the American Beer Renaissance that has pushed us to more than 2,700 breweries nationwide is part of a larger narrative regarding American entrepreneurial resilience in the face of economic despair.

Let me start by saying that I am probably considered a liberal by many, but I’m more of a secular humanist, if you want to get right down to it. I believe in government and laws; I think the rich should be taxed and the sick and poor should be cared for. I think everyone deserves a good public education. However, I’ve lived in parts of the world without capitalism, and it left a lot to be desired. Hell, I’ve lived in parts of the world with way better social programs than I’ve ever been offered in the good ole U.S. of A., but I still felt something was lacking in the cultural and economic mores.

I believe there are three things that set Americans apart from the rest of the world (even the rest of the western world):

  1. Our privilege—White, male or neither, Americans are the most privileged people on the planet. Just go see if there’s clean water in your tap if you have any doubts (oops, sorry West Virginians).
  2. Our “moral” imperative—We think everyone wants to be like us, even when we don’t want to be like us (Puritanism is a hard mantle to cast off).
  3. Our entrepreneurial spirit—Everyone born here is planted in the soil that alleges, “You can be anything you want to be.”

Any of these tenets can be twisted for good or bad, and often are by politicians and pundits alike. However, it’s this pyramid with a base of privilege, upon which rises a mound of righteousness, topped with a can-do attitude that has built this country. It’s why historically anyone could start up a newspaper (now a blog). If you wanted to open a shop, you just did it. Inventing an operating system? Sure. Make billions. Go for it.

So, what in the name of hops heaven does this have to do with the incredible growth of beer in America (over 400 new breweries last year alone; i.e. more than one new brewery each day!)? I posit that as workers are either forced out (i.e. laid off) or opt out of the “traditional” job market, they are putting on their entrepreneurial rubber boots and brewing beer.

Think about it: In today’s economy, what kind of business should you be opening? Consumer spending is crap, few people have good jobs, our moods are pretty much sour. Of course we need a drink! Joking aside, sales of alcohol typically go up during a recession; some homebrewers start off so because they want good beer that they cannot afford to buy. And if you consider that the main growth for breweries over the last five years has been among small and independent brewers, it’s safe to guess they are catering to a hyper-local market (no need to spend money on gas to get some). In NYC alone, we’ve recently seen the launch of Finback Brewery (Queens), Other Half Brewing (Brooklyn), and Gun Hill Brewing Company (Bronx)—not to mention gypsy/contract brewers such as Grimm Artisanal—with several other breweries slated to come online in the year ahead.

No surprise, but it’s damn near impossible to open a brewery in NYC. Yet the American entrepreneur is indomitable! Where there’s a wort, there’s a way!

And let’s postpone a discussion of choice and quality. There are plenty of great beers and far too many good ones for a single person to imbibe in her lifetime. What strikes me as particularly relevant to the question of economy is that most of these brewers are college educated (Other Half’s Sam Richardson got a degree in Fermentation Science from Oregon State, for example). These are not your grandfather’s brewmasters. These are highly skilled, educated men and women with business acumen who are creating jobs for 21st Century workers. No, they aren’t the huge manufacturers of a bygone era. Hell, they aren’t even the brewers of the Lavern & Shirley era (yep, showing my age now). But they are enterprising, and the ripple effects of this growth are being felt by many.

Aside from jobs in the brewery, there are opportunities for distributors, marketers, beer writers, beer reviewers, bottlers, canning companies, food vendors (many breweries don’t have full kitchens but will partner with food trucks), truck drivers, and so on. Hell, last year they even made a rom-com film (Drinking Buddies, it’s on Netflix now) about life working in a brewery!

To those who claim this is a bubble, I say, PSHAW!

This nation is desperate for good work for great workers. And if Americans can drink on the job? Well, they’ll work all the harder for their paycheck. Trust me on that one. Love what you do; drink what you love.

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