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Making Distinctions: The Politics of the Microbrewery Revolution

In the late 1970s the Carter Administration repealed federal regulations dating back to Prohibition that had made the homebrewing of beer illegal.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #16, October 1994

One of the aims of political education for everyday life as Bad Subjects conceives of it is reveal the relations between seemingly unrelated phenomena. This is why Bad Subjects articles always seem to stray from their topics and why this one talks, not only of the microbrewery revolution that is its point of departure, but also of the larger socio-economic context in which this revolution is taking place. We firmly believe that nothing happens in a vaccuum and that one of the best ways to understand a particular phenomenon is to think through the ways it relates to the rest of society.

The Rise of Microbreweries and
the Emergence of Beer Connoisseurship

The United States has been witnessing a renaissance in small brewing operations. During the six decades between the onset of Prohibition and the repeal of these regulations, local breweries with no pretensions to economies of scale had nearly become extinct; now they are flourishing. In the late 1970s the Carter Administration repealed federal regulations dating back to Prohibition that had made the homebrewing of beer illegal. In the wake of this decision, many states decided to relax their own restrictions on beer production. The case of California is typical. In 1982 the state of California repealed a law — most states had a version of it — prohibiting brew pubs, establishments that combine both brewing operations and a tavern (other states eventually followed suit). In 1983 the Mendocino Brewing Company in Hopland opened California's first brew pub since before Prohibition. Now brew pubs dot the state, particularly its northern half. Defining so-called 'microbreweries' as breweries that produce less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year, a recent San Francisco Examiner (8/16) article notes that by June of 1994 there were 154 microbreweries without a brew pub attached, 278 more with a brew pub, and that in 1993 new microbreweries opened at the rate of nearly two per week. The article adds that in some parts of the United States, such as the Pacific Coast, Colorado, Texas, and New England such microbreweries have become particularly common.

Before the advent of microbreweries, Americans' taste in beer was almost exclusively geared towards the mass-produced beers of companies like Anheuser-Busch and the Miller Brewing Company. The smaller breweries that managed to survive in an economic and legal climate for which they were ill suited tended to produce beers little different from Budweiser and Miller. To Europeans accustomed to a diverse array of beers and anxious about a creeping Americanization of their cultures in the wake of World War II, American beers must have seemed the perfect example of everything that was wrong with the products of American capitalism. Startlingly homogenous, engineered for consistency rather than potential perfection, characterized almost by the absence of any distinct taste, American beers seemed to reject diversity in every possible manner. Americans who acquired a taste for a variety of beers abroad returned to a United States where European beer meant Loewenbrau — a mass-produced, domestic product — or Heineken — the European equivalent of Miller High Life. Whereas American wine connoisseurs could choose from both a wide variety of imported wines and an increasingly sophisticated domestic vintage, beer-lovers had little means of indulging their taste for different and better beers.

During the early Reagan Era, so-called 'Yuppies' — young, urban, professionals — created a demand for things imported. They and other consumers, both younger and older, following in their wake made products that were already being imported — such as high-priced German automobiles — attain improbable sales levels. They also encouraged the mass importation of other products — coffee-makers and gourmet olive-oils among them — that had once been almost impossible to find in the United States. Partially because of regulations still lingering from the Prohibition era, importing beer was not as easy as importing most other products. The first foreign beers to rise to prominence in the 1980s were thus those whose content had been altered to easily fit the regulations of the American market: Beck's from Germany, Sapporo and Kirin from Japan, and Guiness from Ireland. The American versions of these beers were altered — usually watered down — to such an extent that they often bore little resemblance to the original versions. Still, their aura of 'importedness' made them popular with people thirsty for the un-American.

By the late 1980s the market for imported beers had changed. Enough Americans knew that they wanted more than the aura of difference. A host of unaltered foreign beers made their way into mainstream American retailers like Liquor Barn and Safeway. The selection of German beers readily available to consumers broadened to include beer lines with the Spaten, EKU, Paulaner, and Ayinger labels (among others) that not only had Becks-type 'export' lagers that outwardly resemble American beers, but also bocks, wheat-beers, and other less familiar items. Similarly, the Samuel Smith line and similar products introduced Americans to the diversity of English beers. Sapporo started exporting Sapporo Black, which is basically the stronger Japanese version of the Sapporo that Americans initially came to know.

The rise in beer imports and the growth of American microbreweries are reciprocal phenomena. In this respect, the development of beer culture parallels that of wine culture in the 1960s. Back then, magazines like Gourmet encouraged a connoisseurship that at first turned its attention to imported wines, but then became actively involved in the creation of and support of smaller, more upscale wineries as an alternative to large corporations like Gallo and Paul Masson. Beer culture advanced in the 1980s as a certain segment of the beer-drinking population developed a taste for diversity in beer. This development of a certain kind of taste benefitted both importers, who could afford to stock beers more radically divergent from traditional American taste, and microbreweries, whose big selling point has always been that they offer consumers choices they would otherwise not have.

The Context of the Microbrewery Revolution:
Post-Fordism and Decentralization

Understanding microbreweries requires that we consider the development of this beer culture more closely. As we have already suggested, the last fifteen years have witnessed a radical transformation in the once homogeneous American beer market. Where it was once nearly impossible to find alternatives to Budweiser and Miller, a diverse array of imports and microbrews now dot the shelves. Similarly, in many places where drinking beer in public used to necessitate a trip to the local bar, brew pubs now offer alternative sites for public consumption. These changes in the American beer market are no isolated phenomenon, but rather one example of a sweeping transformation of American culture. Back in 1982, when microbreweries were in their infancy, economic analyst John Naisbitt read signs of this transformation and projected them into the future in Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. Naisbitt's chapter titles come in the form of oppositions, a contrast between something old and something new: a trend. Many of the trends Naisbitt isolates are relevant for an analysis of microbreweries, but the trend he charts from 'centralization' to 'decentralization' is particularly telling. Naisbitt cites example after example of the way in which Americans were expressing their opposition to the centralized power of Big Government and the mega-corporations that had come to mirror its bureaucratic excesses. They were, in other words, actively challenging the assumptions that had governed political and economic life between the early 1930's and late 1960's, the era of what is commonly called 'Fordism' (because Henry Ford's innovations in efficient and standardized mass production served as a prototype for the organization of both public and private concerns). No longer was it taken for granted that 'bigger is better'; that massive operations are inherently more cost-efficient than small ones; that elaborate bureaucracy functions to make the work of an organization more rational and productive.

Accompanying this revolt against the orthodoxies of Fordist centralization was its logical flip-side: an avid interest in everything which seemed to exemplify decentralization. Naisbitt charts a trend beginning with celebrations of 'cultural and ethnic diversity in the 1960s' and broadening in the 1970s to include a celebration of 'geographic diversity.' Stating that in 1982 Americans had 'gone from 'Black is Beautiful' and 'Polish is beautiful' to 'I love Minneapolis,'' that 'ordinary American citizens had become fiercely loyal New Englanders, Californians, New Yorkers, and so on,' Naisbitt reports that 'celebrating our geographic roots as part of the decentralization megatrend' had inspired 'the phenomenal rise of state, city, and regional magazines,' such as Columbus, Twin Cities, Texas Monthly, Washingtonian and many others,' adding that 'similar magazines launched in the 1950s and 1960s had failed.' What Naisbitt fails to point out is that most of these publications — and we're still inundated with them — look remarkably like one another and are, indeed, often just so many variations on a large publisher's regional magazine template. Regardless, though, the rise of such publications unequivocally indicates a demand for the local and regional identities marketed by such magazines.

This demand for regional and local identities links up with another example of the decentralization megatrend. Naisbitt writes that 'what is happening in America is that the general purpose or umbrella instrumentalities' — he means those large-scale systems associated with Fordism — 'are folding everywhere. An instructive analog was the collapse more than a decade ago of the great general-purpose magazines, Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post, with their 10 million circulations. The same year those great mass-audience magazines folded, 300 new special-interest magazines were born. Soon there were 600, 800, and more. We now have 13,000 special-interest magazines and no general-purpose magazines. That is the analog for what is happening throughout society.' Naisbitt's failure to account for such clearly general-purpose magazines as Time and Newsweek shows that he's stretching to make his point. Nonetheless, the phenomenon that the growth in special-interest magazines is meant to exemplify is a significant one. Just as the success of regional and local magazines indicates a preference for more narrowly defined geographic identities, the overall success of these and other special-interest magazines suggests a more overarching preference for the specific over the general.

Attempts to make sense of the massive transformations in economic and cultural life that have occurred since the 1960s have, like Megatrends, usually emphasized the differences between this period and the Fordist era that preceded it. What these analyses have often lacked, however, is a clear sense of these transformations' complexity, for it is not merely the material reality of everyday life that has been changing, but also people's perception of that reality. It often happens that perceptive people are able to read the first signs that society is changing and project them into the future so that they appear much more fully realized than they actually are. Unfortunately, it is also often the case that the perceptive people who project in this way are not conscious that they are projecting: they believe that they are describing society as it actually is instead of society as it may some day likely be. We can theorize a number of reasons why perceptive people might make this mistake; what must be noted for our purposes here is that on some level these people prefer their vision of what the present might become to what the present actually is. In analyses of the last twenty-five years, for example, this preference often manifests itself in a tendency to de-emphasize or even ignore any suggestion that reports of the demise of Big Government and Big Business might be greatly exaggerated. The omissions that Naisbitt makes in his discussion of magazines are a perfect example of this sort of 'wishful thinking'.

A recent article in The Economist (6/11/94) entitled 'Does Size Matter?' offers that 'the 1980s saw management thinkers transferring their affections en masse from large to small companies.' As the word 'affections' suggests, however, the change here was less in the economy itself than in the minds of people thinking about the economy. The article goes on to note that Bennett Harrison's book Lean and Mean and other recent studies have begun to second-guess the assumptions that underlie works like Megatrends A) because 'big firms such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Toyota have prospered' and 'the most vigorous challengers to established big businesses are often other big businesses;' B) because 'whatever its earlier weaknesses, big business is on the rebound, particularly in the United States,' since businesses have restructured and proven that 'their real problem was not so much that they were too big, but that they were too diverse;' C) because 'small businesses are not the job-generators and technology-innovators of legend;' and D) because 'many small firms are independent in name only.' As the article explains, while 'the last few years have seen more and more large firms trying to imitate the flexibility of their smaller the same time, more and more small firms are trying to act like big ones.' In other words, 'it is increasingly difficult to tell whether some firms are big or small.' Indeed, 'the best firms are both 'big' and 'small', depending on what they are doing. Size, it appears, is all in the mind.'

Class Divisions in American Beer Consumption

Returning to microbreweries, it is easy to see how somebody could mistake them for a sign that Big Business in the beer industry is in trouble. In fact, however, the proliferation of microbreweries has had very little financial impact on companies like Anheuser-Busch and Miller. As the San Francisco Examiner article notes, even taken together with larger regional and contract breweries, microbreweries still only account for approximately 1% of all U.S. beer production. Anheuser-Busch alone, on the other hand, accounted for about half of it. So microbreweries haven't exactly sent any large firms into bankruptcy. However, the growth of an American brew culture interested in imports and microbreweries has appeared to have one appreciable effect on industry giants. Because it has brought more variety to the shelves of American supermarkets and liquor stores, this culture has inspired large firms to offer variety of their own, if only to ensure that their own product takes up plenty of shelf space: 'genuine draft' beers, 'special reserves', dark beers, 'dry' beers, and now 'ice draft' beers. It's important to note that these new choices in mass-produced beers would still strike a European or microbrew fan as 'more of the same': they still partake of the remarkable homogeneity that characterizes traditional brand names like Budweiser, Miller High Life, Michelob, and Coors.

The vast majority of the U.S. beer market belongs to large domestic firms like Anheuser-Busch. If we add the sales of high-volume imports such as Moosehead from Canada, Corona from Mexico, Heineken from the Netherlands, and Beck's from Germany to the sales of these domestic firms, we will have accounted for well over 90% — and that's a conservative estimate — of all American beer sales. The remaining 10% of the market would be accounted for by lower-volume imports, regional and contract breweries, and microbreweries. Between this 90%, on the one hand, and this 10%, on the other, there exists a significant division. The 90% side represents the sort of high-volume, mass-market sales that typified the Fordist era; the 10% side represents the lower-volume, micro-market sales that supposedly herald that era's eclipse. The development of a beer culture interested in the beers that fall on the 10% side of this division led to a proliferation in the choices that face the average beer consumer; yet many of these new choices fall on the 90% side of the division. The last fifteen years have witnessed a fragmentation in the beer market analogous to other examples of the market-fragmentation that signals post-Fordism, but this fragmented market is also bisected by the 90%/10% split we just discussed. Although the 90% side of this split may have come to mirror some of the product diversity on the 10% side, what is more important is the fact that the split exists.

It is to this split that we must turn our attention if we are to truly make sense of microbreweries and the new beer culture that sustains them. In the United States, beer has traditionally been a beverage of the 'average' man (and sometimes woman). To drink beer, especially in public, was to be reduced to a common denominator. While people from a variety of backgrounds may have drunk beer on occasion, its aura derived from the blue-collar consumers who made up its most sizeable and stable market. This is the still viable aura, for example, invoked by the radio commercials </>Roseanne's John Goodman makes for Budweiser, the aura of a no-nonsense beverage for no-nonsense people. During the 1950's and 1960's, when collaboration between business and powerful unions and a boom in manufacturing jobs helped elevate large numbers of blue-collar workers to solidly middle-class status, beer's aura also acquired middle-class overtones.

Whereas the consumption of beer denoted 'averageness', the consumption of wine was divided into deeply opposed categories. Drinking wine either meant that one was a member of the upper and upper-middle classes 'above' beer drinking, or that one was ethnic — Italian, Greek, etc. — in ways that made it hard to be an 'average' American. Wine consumption was bisected by a sharp class division. Beer consumption lacked one, something ensured by the very homogeneity that made American beers inimical to cultivated European tastes. While Miller High Life might have had a slightly classier reputation than Budweiser, the differences between the two beers were minimal enough to prevent people from mapping their class snobberies onto the distinction between them. Beer consumption simply did not lend itself to the assertion of status in the way that other forms of consumption did.

With the development in the last fifteen years of a beer culture devoted to low-volume imports and microbrews, however, beer consumption has come more and more to resemble wine consumption. There is, in other words, a sharp class division between those beer drinkers who stick to the mass-market 90% and those who have cultivated a taste for the imports and microbrews that constitute the remaining tasty tenth. Beer now has its connoisseurs just like wine. These connoisseurs define themselves by a two-fold process of distinction. On the one hand, they distinguish between the 90% and 10% in much the same ways that connoisseurs of the arts have traditionally distinguished between mass and high culture: the 90% represents standardization, the generic, everything that suppresses individual differences; the 10% represents craft, a celebration of individual differences, uniqueness, etc. On the other hand, beer connoisseurs distinguish between beers within the 10% because the very thing that makes low-volume imports and microbrews special is their lack of homogeneity, the fact that they only comprise a coherent category when they are contrasted to the homogeneity of the other 90%.

There is an economic aspect to this class division. Microbreweries thrive in the sort of well-off 'edge cities' I discussed in 'Making Sense of Seattle' in (Bad Subjects #5): Seattle; Austin, TX; Durham-Chapel Hill, NC; etc. Ultimately, however, it is not a matter of money alone. Microbreweries succeed in areas where the population is relatively young and highly educated. Many beer connoisseurs are too young to have amassed much economic capital, but are loaded when it comes to what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls 'cultural capital'. Imports and microbrews appeal not only to those highly educated people who are already making it, but also to those who expect to make it in the future: people of a certain class. In his landmark book Distinction, Bourdieu shows how superficially 'innocent' taste-preferences give people's class affiliation away more readily than anything else. In constructing oppositions between homogeneous, high-volume beers and diverse, low-volume beers, for example, the beer connoisseur is participating in a larger process of social differentiation: 'The network of oppositions...has its ultimate source in the opposition between the 'elite' of the dominant and the 'mass' of the dominated, a contingent, disorganized multiplicity, interchangeable and innumerable, existing only statistically.' Bourdieu adds that the oppositions that make distinctions possible, taken together, eventually lead to 'apocalyptic denunciations of all forms of 'levelling', 'trivialization', or 'massification'...i.e., a fall into the homogenous, the undifferentiated, and betray a fear of number, of undifferentiated hordes indifferent to difference.' Beer connoisseurs who take pains to distinguish the tasty tenth from the other 90% of the American beer market are making distinctions, however unconsciously, that confirm their elite status within American society as a whole. In this respect, beer connoisseurs resemble other practitioners of what the Bad Subjects manifesto refers to as 'alternative consumption' and can thus be illuminated by the discussions of alternative culture that I, Joel Schalit and other contributors to Bad Subjects have examined at great length.

Seeing how the development of microbreweries fits into the larger phenomenon of alternative consumption still leaves us with an important question, however. Why did a sharp class division emerge in beer consumption? The last fifteen years have seen the difference between the haves and have-nots in this country widen considerably. Taking this into account, one way to answer our question would be to argue that the widening of this difference has made it impossible for illusions of 'averageness' to sustain themselves. This would mean that beer consumption as we once knew it can no longer exist. In a broad sense, I agree with this argument. It must be said, however, that there is one aspect of the microbrewery phenomenon that this argument leaves out: it doesnt explain why the people who became beer connoisseurs didn't become wine connoisseurs. Many consumers who chose to devote their critical energies to beer instead of wine clearly were reacting against the stuffiness of wine culture. Often their interest in alternative beer had been piqued by their experiences with illegal homebrews in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In other words, the turn to beer often represented a turn away from the classism so rampant in wine culture, an attempt to cultivate enjoyment of a more democractic beverage. Comparing the publications devoted to beer to their counterparts devoted to wine, one senses that many beer connoisseurs still like to think of themsleves as an opposition to classist orthodoxy : they pride themselves on an informality and hipness that wine publications lack.

Things change, though. Baby-Boomers who once represented a counter-culture gradually integrated themselves into mainstream culture. At the same time, they began to reshape that culture in their own image. Nowadays, wearing jeans and a t-shirt to work no longer means that one is resisting the status quo. Indeed, in many places it is impossible to tell the difference between bosses and low-level clerks merely by looking at the way they are dressed. Similarly, drinking beer no longer connotes an opposition to classism in the way that it one day might have. But we can't simply discount the fact that many beer connoisseurs still imagine themselves to be in opposition to the status quo. One of the biggest problems with the ideology of alternative consumption, as Bad Subjects articles have repeatedly sought to explain, is that it makes people feel that political good inheres in the practice of making distinctions. As Bourdieu makes clear, however, it is the very process of making distinctions that confirms and consolidates peoples class origins. Good taste has a way of looking an awful lot like the taste of those people with the economic and cultural capital necessary to distinguish the good from the bad, the sophisticated from the crass, the tasty from the bland. When we turn our attention to a phenomenon like the microbrewery revolution, then, we must ask ourselves, not just whether good taste has won a battle in its war against tastelessness, but also whether good taste is really as much of an underdog as its proponents would have us believe. Perhaps it is not the tasteless who are losing — not the taste war, but the class war.

When he wrote this, Charlie Bertsch was a Ph.D. student at UC-Berkeley. He now teaches at the University of Arizona. He welcomes your feedback:

Copyright © 1994 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.