Saturday, June 17, 2006

REWIND: The World According to Spike, and What to Do About It.

From April, 1999, as originally published in Walking the Dog, the official newsletter of FOSSILS. The distributorship that Spike worked for was sold a short time later.


“Rog, the beer business just isn’t fun any more. This used to be a people business. Now it’s all about market shares and buy-outs.”

Spike (the fellow on the beer truck)

“Of the displacement of dignity by merchandising that trivializes, there is no end.”

George Will (the syndicated columnist)

Spike is an old friend of mine who delivers beer for one of the local wholesale distributors. He’s been at it for more than ten years, and while it’s common knowledge that a man won’t get rich driving a beer truck, Spike does all right. His wife has a good job, and together they make a nice living.

Spike’s a throwback in many respects. Temperamentally, he’s an old-timer. He enthusiastically dons the requisite advertising wearables -- the jackets, caps and polo shirts -- and he looks good in them. When he’s off the clock, he loyally drinks his employer’s number one aluminum-clad, low-viscosity brand.

To ask Spike a question about business is to receive a prompt and courteous response, unless you’re complaining about something. In this case, he’ll reply with the sort of resigned shrug perfected by service personnel throughout the ages and remind you that after all, he’s just the delivery person. You’ll have to call up the shop and ask one of the guys in charge if you really want to know which end is up.

Spike came in a while back, and we chatted about old times together playing ball. Eventually the conversation turned to current events, and I asked him if he knew anything about the rumors going around that his distributorship was about to be sold to a big player in Indianapolis. Spike didn’t think so, but he didn’t know for sure, and he was prompted to make the statement that began this column:

“Rog, the beer business just isn’t fun any more … ”

I rubbed my chin for a moment and took a long drink of coffee before answering him.

The beer business may not be fun at the macro end, I said, but it’s fine out here in the sub-5% market share percentile, the part devoted to micros and craft brews. What could be more people-oriented than a business where the product is made locally or regionally? When you get to meet the brewers, distributors and bar owners and get your hands dirty rolling kegs around, throwing cases into the trunks of cars, and talking about Sierra Nevada Bigfoot sightings far into the night. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than arguing over whose cans of light beer are served coldest.

I wasn’t finished. Is there any better community than the beer business, when your chosen end of the business is the microbrewing and craft beer part of it? Yes, it takes more work than the macro end. You don’t go home at the end of the day, hang up the jacket and cap, and forget about the day, because you can’t. You don’t want to forget it, either, because you’re living and breathing beer, not just supplying a lowest-common-denominator demand.

To live beer is to be knowledgeable about the brewing process, and fluent in stylistic terms, and to have an open mind. Very often the financial rewards aren’t much, but the energy of the community makes up for it. It’s a thriving, energetic and exciting sub-culture.

Fun? Hell yes. It’s fun.

Somewhere behind his beard, Spike was skeptical. Maybe all this is true, he said, but it’s still a business, with the same pressures and the same obligations to make a profit. In the end, how could it be all that different? It’s all gone sour, the entire business of beer, and not just one part of it. It’s the times we live in, he said.

I disagreed. It may be the same, but it’s very, very different. We looked at each other. Spike’s a good and decent guy, and he was on his way out the door and couldn’t stay much longer anyway, so he said he’d take my word for it. It was unclear whether he was really convinced.

Spike departed to finish his route, and I mulled over his comments. Something else he had said suddenly seemed important. Spike said he’d really hate to see his employer sell out to the larger distributorship. “I wouldn’t want to go out and try to get another job,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time – what else could I do?”

It’s always sad to hear a friend give voice to such weariness and resignation when it comes to his job. Spike can see that his line of work somehow isn’t what it once was, but at the same time he can’t imagine doing anything else. He can’t even imagine doing the same thing for another employer; notice that he instinctively assumed that the sale of his company would mean the loss of his job.

But sadder still is his attitude with respect to the specific business he’s been in for over a decade, which is the business of beer. Workers like Spike spend forty hours each week surrounded by beer – cases, kegs and pallets of it, stacked with forklifts, backed up to the dock at the supermarket, surrounded by point-of-sale materials. Yet few of them, Spike included, actually know anything about beer. Nor do their bosses, who are busy poring over order sheets that reflect the latest ad blitzes conducted by the major brewers.

I feel sorry for Spike. In his own way, he loves his job. He loves the beer business. However, the beer business as he knows it is institutionally incapable of providing sustenance – assuming, and this is critical, that sustenance is being sought.

Spike can sense the rot, but can he see where it originates? Mass-market beer sales long ago ceased to be a “people” business except in the sense that human beings can be influenced by whatever means available to purchase items produced by far-off industrial entities that have no fundamental interest in the communities where their customers, and intermediaries like Spike, live and work. The people you know are local, but there’s nothing truly local about any aspect of the transaction.

Not only that, but the items themselves have been stripped bare of any definable essence, and without essence, sloganeering & propagandistic corporate marketing fills the void – if, in fact, it is physically and philosophically possible for one void to replace another.

Consider George Will’s words: “Of the displacement of dignity by merchandising that trivializes, there is no end.” He was writing about the Church of England in the latter half of the 20th century, but he could have been writing about Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors. Thanks to the efforts of these and other oversized brewing corporations, virtually all substantive meaning has been removed from the noble heritage of beer. Thus deprived of intelligibility, beer may be merchandised just as unintelligibly to the increasingly clueless masses.

The inevitable corollary of stripping beer of its conceptual lineage and locally-based heritage in order to reinvent it as a nationally-manufactured, pliable soft drink is the debasement of every person involved in the process, from brewer to sales person, and from beer truck driver to consumer. If the product has no essence, how can there be essence to any person handling it? If beer’s diversity is reduced to monostylistic conformity, so are individuals reduced to an amorphous, homogenous mass of receptive consumerism.

Spike can sense the rot, but there are ways he can fight back. Unfortunately, he is ignoring these tools.

Why? Perhaps he doesn’t have confidence in his own abilities.

Perhaps he’s afraid to confront one of the great, inexplicable, unspoken rules that apply to beer wholesale distributorships: All employees of a distributorship must know nothing about the product they sell – nothing about the brewing process, nothing about the wider world of tradition and style, nothing about any of it. It is a lamentable state of affairs, which I blame on the corporate brewery mentality mandating that the “beer” being produced is just a product in a wrapper to be pushed into the pockets of faceless consumers.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Knowledge remains the key, and any person can learn. Most of us in the sub-5% market share percentile once lacked knowledge, but we learned. We were animated by our passion, a motive force that drove us to study the terminology and methodology of beer and brewing, to consider questions of physical and human geography as they pertain to beer, and to surpass the limitations of our upbringings.

I urge Spike and his comrades to resume (or, if proper, to begin) the process of education, and to be more than merely functional links in the distribution chain. Knowledge is empowerment, and if the revolution can begin gaining allies among the Spikes of the world, we’re all going to be having more fun … and drinking better beer.

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