By Sarah Erdlen
It’s not unusual for craft breweries to make statements on their websites and their social platforms about creating communities. Breweries come together to brew beers or host events for causes. They certainly leaned hard on community support during wave after wave of shutdowns, and continue to do so as the hospitality industry continues to recover. Some breweries even make community-building part of their mission statement, and incorporate it into their marketing materials.
And truly, this commitment to communities is consistent with the role of taverns, saloons, pubs, and all manner of public drinking spaces within the span of human history. Drinking alcohol as a communal act has always helped humanity mark occasions, pass the time, and discuss the news of the day. When craft breweries make a commitment to inclusivity, they are acknowledging their important role as a public gathering space.
If you want groups of people in your taproom, you’ll have the best luck inviting the most types of people as possible. That certainly means seeing to the safety of all genders and all races, and it also means having options available for those who aren’t going to drink alcohol. There have always been those who abstain from alcohol in our communities, whether they do so dogmatically or not. Pregnant or breast-feeding parents, folks taking certain medications, the designated drivers we’re all supposed to have with us. If they aren’t drinking alcohol, should they be barred from socializing? Rural communities who rely on volunteer firefighting forces always have a group of people among them who are on-call and therefore sober for the night or the weekend. It’s always a good idea to have people nearby who can handle emergencies. More expansively, practicing Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus all have varying degrees of abstention built into their religious customs. Are these members of our community unwelcome in the taproom, if they won’t buy a pint? There are plenty of places where the response is something like “those type of folks don’t live here,” but how would you know, unless you invited them in?
For folks who are in recovery from alcoholism, a bar or taproom may never be a space they can comfortably socialize in again, regardless of what’s in their glass. But people choose sobriety for a wide range of reasons, some temporarily and some permanently. With more people choosing to be “sober-curious” or completely sober, can craft breweries ever include these people in their communities? Or is alcohol consumption a requirement for entry?
Sometimes the choice of sobriety, for a night or a lifetime, is just a matter of getting older, as the negative effects of alcohol start to outweigh the pleasures of imbibing. Sometimes it’s an experiment for self reflection, a “Dry January” or “Sober October” reset on habits. No matter what, folks making choices like these have a major point in common with drinkers: they are choosing the best option for themselves, no matter what everyone else is having. And isn’t that what brought us all to craft beer in the first place? A more pleasurable drink? Who among us hasn’t brought the “weird beer” to the cookout, in our quest to drink something that actually tastes good? Maybe we can learn something from our sober and sober curious friends, and take our time to really enjoy the craft, and put a little more thought into how we fill our glasses.
The capitalist push for consumption – literal consumption of alcohol, in this case – pressures us as customers to have more beer. Capitalism says beers should be “crushable,” so that we can drink three, four, six, ten at a time. We need them to be low-ABV with mild flavor so that we can keep going past our limits, ignoring our palates. There are certainly plenty of low-ABV beer styles in the world, with a wide range of flavor profiles to choose from. But the current trend for craft breweries to pump out an American Light Lager – often just labeled a “craft lager,” a meaningless designation – has taken craft breweries away from flavor and finesse. Breweries are chasing their domestic counterparts, encouraging customers to pick something binge-able.
And low-ABV beers aren’t the only ones specifically created for overindulgence. Cans have pushed out large format bottles as the vessel of choice even for specialty beers. Larger bottles were designed for sharing high-ABV beer, much like a bottle of wine. Of course, it’s absurd to expect small breweries to have the space for both a canning line AND a bottling line, plus store the empties for each. As Imperial Stouts and Barleywines are relegated to cans, though, they’re consistently put in 16-oz cans, not for sharing, but for gulping. A 4-pack of 16-oz cans is just not marketed as four opportunities to share special beer with friends. Trust me: by the time you’re at the bottom of 16 oz of Imperial Stout, your palate isn’t sensing any level of nuance in the beer any more. Any brewery worth their salt would never serve customers a pint glass of a 10%+ ABV beer in their taproom. So why are breweries choosing this format for their high-ABV beers?
It’s true that breweries need to make money in order to continue existing at all. Commerce does not need to be synonymous with capitalism, however, and we can find ways to do business without pushing over-consumption. The more we can move into anti-capitalist business practices, the more we can actually make taprooms function as community spaces. After all, community can’t exist under a capitalist paradigm, and neither can good beer. Capitalism destroys the clean water and agricultural inputs needed for good beer. If we want to keep drinking craft brews, and if we want to welcome non-drinkers to our taprooms, we need to approach the business with a fresh mindset. Breweries have already done so by becoming Certified B Corps, to make their community commitment a legal requirement. More homegrown innovation abounds, too.
Some taprooms already have vendor relationships to source liquor, wine, or cider. These relationships can be leveraged to source mocktail ingredients, NA beer, and other alcohol-free options. In fact, with the rise in popularity of seltzer water, offering a fresh, adult mocktail can be as simple as some carbonated water with a dash of bitters. For the purist breweries who only sell what they themselves make, how about hopped water? Recoup some costs from the odds and ends languishing in your hop cooler. Lagunitas has made it popular on a national level, but it’s well within reach for even tiny neighborhood breweries. Be a little more ambitious, and you could start brewing kombucha, or even your own NA beer. If we’re willing to put brewers’ creative minds to work making umpteen pastry stouts and milkshake IPAs, surely they have the capacity to brew outside the box completely? I’m confident they can.
If we can separate commerce from capitalism, if we turn fully towards the community commitments so many taprooms make, we can make space for folks to enjoy alcohol safely AND to opt out of alcohol, and simply enjoy each other. To me, that’s what craft is all about.