Drunk at the Wheel
Craft beer has changed the shape of drinking culture all over the world. It seems that you can’t throw a rock in any city without smashing the window of a new microbrewery that just popped up specializing in wild yeast sour beers or brews made to taste like cake.
For years it seemed that beer was designated for the blue collar worker, destined to be regulated to a brown bottle to be cracked open after arriving home from a long shift at the factory while spirits and liquor became property of the fat cats, pouring themselves a cocktail in their high-rise offices. I mean… so I’ve been told (my father certainly did not work in a high-rise office).
Beer was the drink of the common man, the middle and lower class. It was cheap, available everywhere, and no matter what your brand was it really all just tasted the same (once again, my dad would beg to differ. “Gotta drink that beer as cold as the rockies!®”). Somewhere, at some point, some one decided to get a little weird with homebrewing. From that point on the craft beer scene took off, providing thousands of variations of ancient recipes and new concoctions that range from the bitterness of triple IPAs to the sweetness of pastry stouts.
I don’t claim to be a historian, but I’m pretty sure this is gospel.
The point of that useless exposition is to get to the point: craft beer exploded and has proliferated, espousing a culture all its own. People travel all over the country to try the newest imperial stout some unknown brewery is putting out. There are entire websites and apps devoted to trading one region’s staple of saison for a limited release of a barrel-aged-who-knows-what that’s named after a dead poet and tastes like angel tears and Scottish peat moss had a surrogate baby birthed by Canadian maple syrup.
And you know what? I’m a fan. I love craft beer. Love everything about it. I love the tastes you can pull from every pint, separating them and falling in love with the flavors, sinking your teeth into a chewy oatmeal stout and salivating over the savory, roasted notes of a smoky porter. I love the hard work that goes into making a beer. The research done in finding the right ingredients, the love poured into each batch and the attention to detail a true auteur can impart on the small scale that only a microbrewery can provide. The pure artisan talent in making a beer that can be described in terms often reserved for reviewing an impressionist painting is astounding. A good beer can make you feel something other than just drunk. A good beer should make you feel… something. Something in the same way a brilliant sunset can make you cry.
And that’s just that! So many people feel the same way! So many friends and like-minded fans love parsing the possibilities that a sip can provide. It makes you feel good, and it truly is a wonder that such a cacophony of sensations can be imbued by just a few ounces of what, in the most literal of terms, is just old grains, plant matter, some single-celled organisms, and rain.
It’s not just the beer that makes the scene what it is- it’s the community. Beer snobs (sorry, connoisseurs) flock together. They seek each other out and are filled to the brim with a child-like glee when it comes to sharing, trading, talking about their favorites that they’ve had along their tasting journeys. I love meeting people with a larger collection than I have accrued (read: REALLY DAMN JEALOUS), because that means that they are probably going to give me something I’ve never had before. We pry open a bottle, we take a sip, we gush about how amazing/horrific/I-know-a-guy-that-would-like-this/unique it is, and the adventure continues.
It’s not exactly a mystery how, once understanding the following craft beer has, so many breweries popped up over the past twenty years or so. Everyone wants in on the action! They want to be a part of this fun, rebellious, intimate craftsmanship that has proven to be profitable and a great career for the business-minded fan of small-batch buffoonery. As a brewery manager myself I would be the first to say how much I love the scene and love meeting new people, talking about our offerings, the pairings, the story behind the names of the beer, and how we like to give back to the community in every way we can.
Any job without aggravations, however, is not a job. Being behind the bar makes you part therapist, part janitor, and constant observer. There are the menial jobs that never end (dishes, mopping, wiping, dishes, stocking, cashing out, dishes, dishes, dishes), and just like any job it’s all part of the process. Par for the course, eh? And being manager you see much more of the business than others do. With scheduling, hiring, firing, training, coaching, interacting with patrons, helping with marketing, events, payroll, certifications, you understand how the whole business works.
It’s a blast. No sarcasm. No joke. Running a brewery may be stressful and busy, but that’s no different than any other business. You work with amazing people, meet fascinating customers from all over the world, and you get to have beer!
And you get to have beer.
That line is weird to me. Even as I typed it, it stuck out. Normally that’s a positive thing for me to say, “Work is great! I get to have beer!” But the very nature, the point of this rant is to highlight what has been a long uncomfortable truth about craft brewing.
The hobby of enjoying craft beer can be a great cover for the functioning alcoholic.
Every fan of beer likes to drink it. Drinking beer does many things; some beers make you feel warm, some cool you off, some taste like a bonfire, some taste like tea, but all beer does one thing in common: intoxicates.
I love having one-too-many every once in a while just like anyone else. It’s fun getting silly and having a bit of liquid courage to sing some Stevie Wonder in front of a crowd of strangers. I love the conversations that unfold that probably wouldn’t have if someone hadn’t ordered another round for you and your friends. It’s part of the reason why I started trying new things to begin with.
Constant access to that is… tricky. Easy access to good, high-quality brews can certainly be a blessing… if you can stop. You have to ask yourself:
At what point does your passion become a problem?
To quote a friend of mine, “Dog” Mahler (former owner of The Doghouse Pub in Marquette, Michigan), “Don’t drink in your own bar. Especially don’t be drunk. It’s too easy to let that become normal.”
Now, as a fan of good beer, you want to be proud of what you create. You want to show people and share a drink with them, describing the whole process that brought that mess of random ingredients into a glass. I get it, that’s part of my job.
I’m a trained monkey, showing people how cool it is to drink our product all while dancing to the tune of an organ grinder. I take a sample, I sell five pints in a minute. Easy.
I’ve seen brewery owners take this a bit far. No, nobody is going to blink when they come in and grab a beer. Hell, I’d do the same thing. If I owned the place, I would think, “It’s my beer, I paid for it, I love it, may as well drink it.”
Yes. Do this. Enjoy and reap the benefits of the seeds of which you sowed! Buy a round for some potential investors, comp a beer for a loyal customer, have some fun. There’s no point in being in the business if you aren’t having fun.
But then… there’s the issue of overindulgence. When you come into your pub and pour yourself a draught at 9 in the morning while counting the register… that’s not a good look. When you come in to watch the music you hired and are flush in the face, stumbling, and making sexual jokes to your bartender after your seventh beer… that’s a problem for the staff and the image of the brewery.
Many establishments have this issue. Imagine you are in a small city: Everyone knows everybody, and your business presence truly has an effect on the whole town, and your actions do not go unnoticed. As a business owner, you are a public figure and as such there are certain expectations that are held for you in this regard. Regardless if you are in a small town or not. Look at figures such as Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing. He is a figure who loves a good pint and encourages his staff to have fun and get weird with it without fostering an environment of drunken and disorderly chaos. Dogfish Head Brewing has consistently been one of the biggest craft brewers in the states and is constantly raising the bar of what to expect.
People want to open a brewery because they love the culture, but can be sidetracked by the easy access to what they provide. To quote Tony Montana, “Never get high on your own supply.” If you are constantly inebriated, how are you setting the stage for success? How are you providing a good example for your employees? How are you representing the craft brewing community?
I would argue that everyone thinking of opening a brewery needs to keep this in mind: when you take the mantle of a brewery owner you now represent the dream of everyone who calls themselves a craft beer fan. You are the face of your company, the face of your employees, and the face of the brewing movement to your community. People will look to you for inspiration, as a hero. Don’t prove the old saying right… never meet your heroes.
It’s been long known in the circles of the industry that alcoholism is rampant. But as the craft beer scene becomes more and more mainstream, it’s imperative that we start being better examples for the world to see. We can keep inspiring and keep bravely moving forward in experimentations and fostering this creative environment of a better beer to behold… but responsibly, ethically, and maybe with a touch of self-control.
If you or someone you know suffers from alcoholism, substance abuse, or really any mental illness, contact one of the many resources at your disposal, reach out, and together we can build a Better Drinking Culture.
Craft beer should be fun. It should be inspiring. It should be adventurous. Be safe. Be good. Be better.