The Brett Effect: The Craft Beer Business and the Newest Supreme Court Justice
The evening after Brett Kavanaugh said the word “beer” around 30 times while testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a friend of mine posted a simple message on Facebook: “The Beer Industry is Insulted.”
She and I both work in craft beer, which mostly consists of small family enterprises run by maverick entrepreneurs who don’t want to be perceived as “corporate.” This world is quite different from that of “big beer.”
While a woman wrote this Facebook post, I’m not sure that matters much. Most of the likes and comments were from men who also work in beer. That said, despite progress, even the craft side of this world remains male-dominated. In my book, Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing, I joke that most beery debates are “he said, he said.” I wrote that in 2012, and I have since seen more and more women join the industry.
Most of us in this business strive to stay away from politics, at least publicly. After all, those who buy our product are a diverse crew, especially given that beer is the world’s third most popular drink, after coffee and tea.
Plus, there can be fallout from being overtly partisan. Atlanta’s Scofflaw Brewing recently experienced intense backlash after its p.r. firm sent out a press release, supposedly without the owners’ knowledge, offering free beer to Trump supporters in the U.K.
Some Brett Kavanaugh enthusiasts celebrated his Supreme Court nomination by drinking beer. We know this because they posted photos to social media that included the hashtags #BeersforBrett and #Beers4Brett. Most of the photos I saw were of Budweiser, Coors, Michelob and Corona brands, AKA big beer. (Note that, of these, only Coors is partially American-owned).
However, Brett lovers also celebrated with craft. I saw hashtagged photos of beers from numerous craft breweries, including Boston Beer (Sam Adams brands), Allagash (Brett IPA — ha*), Firestone Walker, Deschutes, Revolver, Surly, New Glarus, Ninkasi, Brooklyn, and Stone (Arrogant Bastard Ale, no less). Per the Brewers Association, there currently are more than 6,000 U.S. craft breweries, so this shouldn’t be surprising. But, somehow, it is.
Surprising because craft beer, despite an annual increase in market share, still has a reputation for being fringe in much of the country. At 12.7 percent of the beer sold by volume in 2017, craft is merely a drop in the bucket. Also, to be called craft, a brewery must be independent, defined by the Brewers Association as: “Less than 25 percent of the brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer.” Big beer buying up smaller breweries or portions of breweries is a story in itself.
Craft beer tends to attract nonconformist personalities — which doesn’t mean we’re all liberal or even Democrats — we’re not. But there do seem to be more left-leaners in this business than in many other nationwide industries. Craft breweries I’ve worked with, for the most part, buy local when possible, sell local, employ local, and strive to be inclusive. They support non-profits, help revitalize communities, and serve as gathering spots for diverse groups. None of those qualities are prerogatives of the left. However, all that kumbaya stuff is part and parcel of craft beer, especially for small breweries that make and sell beer mostly in their own hometowns.
So, is the craft beer industry insulted by the fact that our product was a touchstone in the testimony of an accused sex offender who now sits on the highest court of the land? My answer is yes and no.
From a promotional standpoint, more folks thinking about and drinking beer is good for sales and outreach. Even if most people drink multi-international corporate brew, there’s apparently spillover to American-owned craft, as proven by hashtags.
However, no business, big or small, wants to be tainted by association with, even unproven, illicit activity or behavior. Did Brett drink beer when he was underage? It seems likely. Underage drinking is not cool with this industry. Did he abuse and terrify a young woman while under the influence of beer? If so, that’s completely unacceptable. Many Asheville breweries have bathroom signage explaining how to signal a beertender if someone needs to escape a date or threatening situation. While we may be horrified by the accusations, where there’s merely “he said, she said,” the only fact to be insulted by is that Brett Kavanaugh liked, and still likes, beer.
I choose to believe Christine Blasey Ford. Regardless of what I believe, in 1982, when the alleged incident took place, there were only a handful of American craft breweries. We can be sure that Brett was not chugging craft back then. I wasn’t, and I, too, was a high-school student in 1982 who liked beer. (Now I feel dirty).
Brett’s testimony mostly perpetuates the Animal House stereotype of hard-drinking teenagers and young adults. That stereotype is one that craft beer strives to overcome. We embrace the snobbiness of beer drinkers who natter on about stuff like mouth feel and bitterness and hop varieties. The craft beer geek stereotype is the polar opposite of that of the keg-standing frat boy.
Personally, I am insulted that the nectar I’ve spent many years writing about and promoting and selling became a rallying cry for misogyny. I want beer to be celebratory, not divisive. I want beer to bring people to the table, not bring them to hurling obscenities.
A part of me is impressed with craft beer’s non-partisan reach (thanks hashtags). I’m glad that what once was niche is more mainstream. Yet, I’m sad that beers I love are being used as a “fuck you” to people who believe Christine Blasey Ford. Despite advances throughout the industry and America as a whole, beer** apparently still is a “he said, he said” business.
*Brett, in this case, refers to Brettanomyces, a strain of yeast used to ferment beer. It’s often colloquially (or on beer labels) called Brett. It is not a reference to anyone named Brett. And I’m pretty sure many of us in the biz now will spell out the word to dispel confusion.
**In terms of full disclosure, I wrote the word “beer” around 30 times in this article.