Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Ruminations, Part 2.

I’ve neglected this blog over a period of years roughly commensurate with the planning and realization of NABC’s Bank Street Brewhouse, which opened in 2009.

Those with the grace and patience to continue reading will recall that there was a gradual transition, from a preponderance of musings on the world of better beer in general versus a small number of considerations about NABC’s business, to the other way around. I started seeing invoices with an unaccustomed string of numbers in front of the comma, and bank statements with too few of them, and found myself shilling.

Now that some time has passed, it’s easier to look back on all this and realize that in spite of all the planning and preparation, the advent of Bank Street produced warm fuzzies for only a week or so, and then devolved into trench warfare over a period of years. The sheer number of miscalculations and mistakes we made over a far longer period than I ever expected, coupled with something akin to shell shock, produced a considerable degree of self-centeredness.

This fact alone won’t shock too many readers, but maybe it would help to know that the experience of starting a brewery from scratch using a bank’s big wad of money, and doing it fast, without the long, steady period of evolution that guided my first 17 years “in business,” caused me to stop, look in the nearest available reflective device, and aim knitting needles straight for my eyes.

Holy shit: It’s a business, after all.

Now, I’ve never considered myself a capitalist, and apart from the Red Room at the Public House and all the other little symbols I cherish as helpful tools to make non-thinking, habitual folks uncomfortable, I’m not a socialist, either. What I am is someone who always, at some point, finds himself utterly alarmed at being the member of the majority in any endeavor, and is prone to fearsome bouts of doubt and questioning.

But that’s the way it should be. It’s just that for me, blind and unthinking allegiance to any system of thought and preference is to be questioned, and perhaps avoided entirely. To claim allegiance to a system should be to have the ability to chart the loyalty, explain it rationally and defend it with reason, not emotion. The Dionysian side of beer drinking is gratifying, indeed; in many respects, I’ve devoted my life to it, but I cannot merely be a hedonist even if it’s something I’ve loved so well. The embrace of beer or anything else as a doctrine must come with sense and sensibility, or else fail to pass the acid test.

Which is what? The best I can do is say it’s a sense of placemaking, reverting to the old notion that the best beer in the world is the one you’re drinking now, and the best spot to do it is where you’re seated. Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” Isn’t all beer drinking, too? Give me honest pints, good people, and a quality venue. What else is there?

Back to the business end: Perhaps I’m finally coming to understand that while I’ve always humored myself with the notion that craft beer in general, and NABC’s food and beer business in particular, both constitute a bold, innovative refutation of workaday American capitalism-as-usual, it really isn’t the case at all, especially since Bank Street Brewhouse came about and demanded the fluffing of bankers and bean counters in ways great and small.

Label me naïve (and I plain don’t care), but by extension, I’ve always looked upon the entirety of the craft beer revolution as something blissfully transcending the exploitative grubbiness of commerce – still do, in fact, although it gets more difficult with each passing day to comprehend why my chosen field of endeavor, craft/good/better beer, seems so intent on forgetting the tenets that brought it to this wonderful place in a mad scramble to become just like every other business before it.

After three decades spent explaining why and how what we do is different from the industrial brewers (and furthermore, is better), now we’re intent on mimicking them: Accumulating capital, then deploying the capital accumulation to control marketplaces in the time-honored sense. For me to awaken and see that in spite of all our grand words to the contrary, the ideology of the cancer cell (growth for the sake of growth) applies to us, too, is depressing.

What’s more, we seem determined to become entirely Orwellian about it, changing definitions (how many million barrels constitutes “craft” these days?) to calculate a market share, so as to expand to such a point of return-on-investment that we can insist on one hand that the freshest beer you’ll ever drink is made right here – and by the way, you can now buy our beer in a city 1,000 miles away … and if they continue to love it there, by golly, we’ll just start brewing it there, so it can be local, too, everywhere in the United States, albeit devoid of whatever imagery that ever made it local in the first place.

Yep, just like those “regional” Budweiser breweries scattered over half the planet, but of course, craft remains somehow different from what came before, except that if we know nothing about what came before, how do we judge?

Don’t worry: I’m guilty of it, too. NABC bought into capitalism just like all the rest, and that’s what makes it so damned galling.

1 comment:

Rebecca P said...

I can imagine deciding when "craft" isn't so anymore (number of barrels produced, the number of brewery locations, and so on) can be a maddening conversation.

But from my perspective I think a measure (or a measure that I can at least wrap my head around) could be to look at the word "craft" itself and even refer to your phrase up top "unreconstructed swillocrats."

I guess I just keep referring back to the question of, does this beer taste like it has purpose? Does it still seem carefully made, purposeful, and well...good? Is the brewery still moving forward (not referring to growth numbers) or is it simply resting on old practices and just maintaining the status-quo?

Anyways, really enjoyed reading this - very articulate musing.