Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — Transactional Analysis in American Craft Beer

It’s perhaps the most overused phraseology in modern American craft beer. So much so that now I hear it coming from craft beer outposts around the world who want to sound as American as the beer they brew tastes. It’s a foregone conclusion—if you brew it, they will come. No need to worry about what the people actually want.

So pervasive is this idea that American brewers make what they personally like to drink that even in the midst of this sudden uptick in Pilsners, Lagers and, indeed, Mexican Lagers, we’re being given the exact same story. It turns out American craft brewers like to drink this stuff, too. Is there anything they don’t like to drink?

It used to be anything of the “yellow fizzy” variety was met with outright viciousness in the craft beer parlance of the 1990s. It’s still safe to say, on average, American craft brewers aren’t quite making the value-brand equivalents of a cheap, adjunct Lager—at least not yet. They’re mostly making the contemporary version of it with a hopped-up, aromatic tilt. And plenty of them are indeed smartly using adjuncts like flaked maize and rice where they need to in order to successfully create the texture and lightness we’ve long craved in our “macro Lagers.”

Shaun Hill, in an interview with a plucky New York sneaker blogger, once said, “I actually find myself drinking Miller High Life or Budweiser because those beers are perfectly crafted. They’re soft and there are off flavors, but they’re intentional. There are flaws that they intentionally put in the beer in order to continue the flavor profile, but those beers are really easy to drink. Not all beers are easy to drink.”

Coming from one of America’s most progressive brewers, that was a hard pill to swallow for many. Here was a guy at the far end of the spectrum for sought-after artisanal farmhouse beers finding resonance in the brewing techniques and the beers that his fans most hated. But they also sort of knew he was right.

Things didn’t go exactly that way for David Chang, though. He walked into the craft beer buzzsaw when he once postulated that cheap beers have a place, and it’s mostly with food. In the now infamous op-ed in GQ antagonistically titled “My Name Is David Chang, and I Hate Fancy Beer,” he wrote:

“Think about how well champagne pairs with almost anything. Champagne is not a flavor bomb! It’s bubbly and has a little hint of acid and tannin and is cool and crisp and refreshing. Cheap beer is, no joke, the champagne of beers. And cheap beer and spicy food go together like nothing else. Think about Natty Boh and Old Bay-smothered crabs. Or Asian lagers like Orion and Singha and Tiger, which are all perfect ways to wash down your mapo tofu.” 

That screed not only got him some fire from craft beer drinkers, many of whom probably mistook him for the typical clickbait intern who’s job is solely to stir shit up on line and bypassing his credentials altogether, but it got an official retort from one of craft beer’s luminaries, Garret Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery. Oliver is also the author of The Oxford Companion to Beer, and has a reputation for skillful food and beer pairings—a skill that’s either as wondrous as ancient alchemy or as worthless as a McDonald’s menu, depending on your tilt. He’s also known to dine and drink with European royalty. He has an insane life. And he’s earned every second of it as one of our best brewers.

GQ got the clicks on that one, too, publishing it under the title “My Name Is Garrett Oliver, and I Hate Crappy Beer.” In it, he challenges the authenticity of Chang’s stance more than his preferences, and even circles back to prove…something? I’m honestly not sure. “Could I still murder a bag of White Castle cheeseburgers at midnight? Hells yeah! But I don’t go telling Danny Meyer about it every time I see him.” It seems Oliver doesn’t mind anyone drinking these beers. He just doesn’t want to hear about it. Gotta keep up the good face and all that.

Brooklyn Brewery’s flagship, by the way, is a (delicious) contract-brewed Lager. Roughly 50% of it is sold overseas.

So are we now to believe that all these ambitious, iconoclastic, revolutionary brewers are brewing what they like to drink? Well, yes and no. Many of them, if you’re in the brewery after hours, will break out some PBRs, Banquets, or High Lifes. Some of them will even sell it to you during business hours. So yeah, they actually do like to drink the stuff, even if it’s counter to everything they sell you (both physically and spiritually). But I’m not going to focus on the silly hypocrisy of all that—everyone’s entitled to a party in the back no matter what they’re selling. Rather, I want to talk about the long tradition of making whatever beer you’re required to make the business work while you slowly build up a customer base for the stuff you’re passionate about. It’s like the brewer’s version of keeping the day job to pay the bills while staying up late to work on the side hustle you truly love.

And it turns out that a really good way to enable yourself to make the beers you love, is to also make the beers that other people want. And there’s not enough privilege in being one of 5,300 American craft brewers that enables you to ignore that reality. Here’s why I feel confident in saying that.

The narrative of America’s macro adjunct Lagers is one of oppression. Somehow, the masses were beaten into submission by these powerful conglomerates and their weak, watered-down beers were forced down our throats with advertisements and monopolistic sales tactics. I’ll give that story a 70% score in post-prohibition.

But long before our country’s fascination with the temperance movement, Lagers took the world by storm because people—gasp!—loved them. Even the regional brands that got bought up in the great consolidation in the U.S. were making variations on that theme with few exceptions. These were the beers people wanted en masse. And these entrepreneurs weren’t caught up in some artistic principles that pitched them against the desires of their customers. 

The industrial brewers did, however, often make beers out of personal interest, research, and development—or at least tested the market to see what might tickle the fancy of a new generation of customers. So many of these efforts fall by the wayside, however, because the numbers they produce are a distraction to the largess of the simple Lager businesses, which had become a well-oiled machine. Every few years they try again, but the effects are mostly the same and they return the baseline business of Lager. And so on for generations with only a few exceptions like Blue Moon.

It wasn’t until enough of the market craved IPA that the industrial brewers were able to justify the time and effort on what had become known as “craft.” And for many of the people working in these corporations, it couldn’t come soon enough. After all, attracting a millennial workforce to sell the same light Lagers for another generation was untenable. And the pent-up talent and expertise that’s finally being focused on a wide variety of styles and techniques at these conglomerates is the inverse of what’s happening with our smaller brewers who are rapidly trying to figure out how to engineer yellow fizzy beer through chemistry. As a result, the talent pool is a wave in two directions right now.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Brasserie Dupont is more than 250 years old, and only recently have they sold more Saison Dupont than any other beer they make. Weird, right? I mean, most of us grew up thinking the brewery was called Saison Dupont. But over the course of those couple centuries, even in the midst of their pursuit for amazing Saison (their true passion), they had to sell Moinette Blonde to pay the bills. For the previous generation, it was the invasion of German-style Lager that forced them into a sort of service to the people. Not because it was the best Pilsner being made, or because it was the beer they liked to drink, but because making a fresher, local version of it was highly competitive. It kept them all employed and making a minuscule amount of Saison, the beer they loved. Without those beers, and without the willingness to make them, Brassiere Dupont wouldn’t be here today. It probably wouldn’t have existed beyond the turn of the century.

It wasn’t until the ‘80s that a thirsty U.S. audience (comparable to Belgium) would drink enough Saison to turn it from passion project to profitable for the brewery. In their homeland, in the Wallonia Valley, a sort of garden of Eden for the style, it’s still not the biggest seller. And Olivier Dedeycker isn’t over there telling drinkers—with a big ol’ air of folksy altruistic bullshit—that he’s making Pilsner because he makes beers he likes to drink. He doesn’t even visit Brussels more than a couple times a year.

“I prefer to stay in the country where I can run in the morning, eat a good meal, and drink Saison every day,” he told me over a ham shank and some too-fresh Saison. “I prefer it in the bottle after two years.”

A possible equivalent arc to the story for a brewer like Firestone Walker would be that, for the next few generations, until around the year 2200, they’ll get by on a beer like 805 in their home market until their Barrelworks series eventually tops 50% of their production and most of that is sold to the newly awakened palates of China where everyone mistakenly calls the brewery Bretta Walker. (My apologies to Firestone Walker for this example.)

Likewise, our contemporary craft breweries are making the beers that they have to, alongside the beers that they want to, and yeah, I’d wager they like drinking all of them to some extent. But making these beers isn’t about wanting to have them around to satisfy their own cravings. It’s just as much about satisfying that critical bottom line—and, god forbid, their customers—that best utilizes the longterm investment they’ve made in concrete and steel. 

“Thank god. Once every craft brewer makes a good pils, the takeover of American beer will be complete,” tweeted Firestone Walker cellar manager Sam Tierney the other night. He was answering someone’s angst at craft brewers making more hoppy Pilsner. 

To which Joel Kodner at Due South Brewing responded: “Here in Florida, we can't make a beer without it tasting like ice cream birthday cake and Christmas ham, so count us out.”

“I wonder if this will lead to folks realizing this is what brewers always did to stay alive,” added David Berg of Schell. (Which is, incidentally, America’s second-oldest brewery.)

And then Tierney slayed the group with this sarcastic kicker: “I always thought they turned to mainlining their own passion in tough times.” 

Let’s hope the fourth generation gets to make some fucking Saison.

Words by Michael Kiser
Graphics by Hillary Schuster