Craft Beer for Change
by Katie Johnson
How can drinking beer effect change? With the ever growing popularity of craft breweries and innovative locally focused small-scale brewers, can you imagine the impact if more consumers paused to look at the values brewed into their beer prior to consuming it?
Dr. J. Jackson-Beckham shared some statistics to give the audience at the “Craft Beer for Change” Summit a frame of reference for just how vast the potential is when consumers react to brewers who take “responsibility for their beer.”
- There are upwards of 7,000 craft breweries in the U.S.
- Somewhere around 80-85% of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery.
- The demographics of craft brewing are ripe for change with only 31% of brewers being women (fewer still are owners) and an even smaller margin, 4% being African American.
As America’s most consumed beverage, it’s easy to see how the craft beer industry has immense opportunity to influence change. And with an increasing density of breweries in or near most cities, consumers have the opportunity to shake hands with and talk to brewers in person instead of heading to a grocery store where you may be able to source the product, but won’t gain the knowledge you could if you source direct from the brewery itself. Dr. J. reiterates by noting that “Something is happening when it comes to economies of value when it comes to this product.”
“This is a large industry of people who broach that together,” says Adam Dulye, executive chef for the Brewers Association and moderator of this summit. He spoke to the fact that the craft beer industry is unique in that there exists an unparalleled comradery and sense of community, to the point where there is consistent knowledge sharing between brewers. In most industries this same mentality isn’t sustainable due to the drive for competition above all else. Dr. J. confirmed this point by calling out the collaborative nature of brewing as can be seen from the popularity of “collaboration beers,” often born out of necessity. If you are brewing a beer and do not have enough of something, you look to your community of brewers to see if one of them has what you need to collectively finish the product, emotive to the ideal of “borrowing a cup of sugar” from one’s neighbor.
And the “we are all in this together” mantra isn’t just an anthem for small-scale independent breweries. It was 15 years ago that Katie Wallace (currently the Director of Social and Environmental Impact at the company) started working for New Belgium, a brewery that originally got up and running in 1991 while it was still operating out of a basement. Today, the company is employee-owned and run by wind power, speaking to the company’s commitment to focusing their product and culture on the issues of climate action, policy work, and social equity (diversity and inclusion, yes, but also wealth equity and the good and bad impacts that come with new breweries – with wealth comes gentrification). These tenets are built into their business model, not to mention brewed into their beers. Katie laments, “I hear a lot of brewers say, ‘Oh, well, I’ll make more investment in sustainability once I get going.’ But, there are a lot of scrappy solutions that are the roots of the craft brewing industry, piecing these things together. I think it’s a myth that it’s more expensive to do the right thing.” That’s not to say that there aren’t still issues to be concerned with in the industry. And from the consumer standpoint Wallace admits “it can be really overwhelming.”
Some things to look for? B corporation status, the use of salmon safe hops, efforts to reduce water use and general waste (down to installing lights that automatically turn off when not in use), the Brewers Association’s Independent seal, a commitment to regenerative agriculture and experimenting with perennial grains (like kernza and sorghum), and even reducing the waste of spent grain by repurposing it for everything from animal feed to wild yeast bread and dog treats. Dr. J. validates, saying, “Anecdotally, craft brewers tend to have more best practices in more areas of innovation. I have seen over and over again the opportunities that craft beer can open up.”
Which just goes to show that beer, like humans, can have a moral compass.