Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wednesday Weekly: "To Heck with Rants (Part One)"

(In two parts to make up for last week's blank spot)


It has taken me more than ten days to write this column.

Seldom do I worry very much about how my words might be taken out in the world, but this time, a disclaimer seems merited, because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m overly denigrating Nate Heck, a brewer somewhere in the Eastern United States, and a fellow I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting.

I’m not knocking Nate, just disagreeing on a few central points, and perhaps learning something about the nature of capitalist division of labor – and my part in it – in the process.

You see, I’m mentioning Heck’s name here only because a few days ago, he managed to spark one of those brief Internet furors that flare into “trending, and then disappear into the cyber ether, way faster than you can drink a pint of gently carbonated cask Bitter (an overview is here).

Evidently, the brewer Heck was asked a question, responded with a long-suppressed rant, and subsequently the beer world (more accurately, those beer enthusiasts hanging out on-line) lined up to debate his rant’s numerous bullet points, because as rants go, it was a real beauty.

It will surprise no one who knows me that I’ve had some measure of experience inciting riots, perhaps less lately than in the past, when the beer world was so much smaller and it was easier to cop a profile on the fly. Consequently, I’m the last person on the planet who’d criticize anyone for speaking his or her mind, Nate Heck included.

But after reading his thoughts, what bothered me was that they kept on bothering me, and I couldn’t put a finger on why this was so. Something he said in his rant got to festering under my skin. What was it? A few dozen beers later, it has become slightly clearer to me.

Both Nate Heck and the Publican obviously give a damn about beer. No arguments there.

However, he’s a brewer, and I’m a brewery owner.

At first glance, you’d think this wouldn’t matter very much. Most of the time, it doesn’t. Vast and pervasive tracts of daily workplace experience are shared by brew house artisans and management, and yet ultimately, there is a difference in perspective; nothing like a chasm, but a difference nonetheless, and one perhaps best illustrated by my chosen job description.

My business card says “Carnival Barker,” not owner.

Whether I’m good at it or not, and I’ll freely admit that it’s a coin flip of a call on some days, my job as brewery owner extends beyond signing the paychecks, donating my house (more than once) for use by the bank as collateral, and sometimes even deigning to provide overall direction to the daily operations.

(If not for co-owners who do much of the dirty work, it’d get ugly.)

For better or worse, I’m also NABC’s central pitchman. Not only that, I’m the chief educator as well. In my opinion, if I’m the owner, and I’m not pitching the product and educating, I’m not doing my job.

Furthermore, if there is any one thing I’ve learned after twenty years, it’s that selling better beer stands alongside love and war, in the sense that all’s fair while undertaking it. Any tools you have to market your products, don’t hesitate to use them.

From the beginning, even when my natural shyness was sometimes a crippling impediment to overt public advocacy, I’ve thrown myself out in front crowds and curves, and tried my best to talk people into taking a peek inside our tent -- and if they like what they see and taste, to spend a bit of their hard-earned money while they’re here.

Because: No money coming in, no business … and no freshly brewed craft beer, either.

And so yes, while much of what Nate Heck “cynically” ranted makes sense, it makes less sense when you consider the inconvenient truth that if craft beer does not succeed as a business enterprise, it will not continue to exist as a generous gift to us from governmental subsidies, or materializing afresh after the wave of a magic wand from the Wizard of Good Beer.

We have to sell beer and grow the segment.

That’s the way it works, folks.

Here’s what Nate Heck wrote (in italics), followed by my response (in bold). In the spirit of the dialogue, natch.

NH: I have spent most of my adult life making beer. I love what I do and of course, I love beer. However, it seems like over the past few years, something has changed and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what it is exactly. I guess I’m cynical because I see a lack of appreciation for the history of brewing. Lots of people seem to think that craft brewing started when Sam Calagione started DFH, and believe that “Beer Wars” are the gospel truth about the beer industry and that Stone Brewing doesn’t market their beer.

RB: If people have misconceptions about history, whether history is taken to refer to brewing, the American Civil War or ancient Sumerian numismatics, the only way these misconceptions can ever be addressed is through education, a pursuit that rewards patience and constant repetition, among other necessary qualities. As with any teacher who is instructing in any discipline, enthusiasm about the subject matter is vital. Take the initiative, and take information to the customer.

NH: And that is also something I’m cynical about…the evangelical aspect of craft beer. People feel they have to convert the unwashed Bud drinking masses. Beer is not some binary thing. You can enjoy an ice cold PBR AND like Russian Imperial Stouts…at the same time! *Gasp!* The blasphemy!!!

RB: Teaching is evangelistic. I appreciate where Nate is trying to go, but his mistrust of evangelism is bizarrely short-sighted. Take away the evangelistic aspect of craft beer, and watch as market penetration declines (not increases) exponentially. Take away the evangelistic aspect of craft beer, and shed numerous jobs, perhaps even the ranter Heck’s own paid brewery position. Take away the evangelistic aspect of conversion, and lose much of the entire point of brewing different (better, more diverse) beer in the first place. Craft brewing is a business, but the beauty is that it can be a lifestyle, too. Evangelism and marketing are two ways of referring to the same process, whereby we invite those outside the tent to step inside and try our wares. It sells itself, but only up to a point.

Continued here: Wednesday Weekly: ""To Heck with Rants (Part Two)"

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