A Theory of Craft Beer and Why We Think It’s Cool

A few years back I did some research on the Cape Town Craft Beer Scene. This was a time when the ‘craft beer revolution’ was in full swing. Newly established bars, restaurants and craft markets catering for the city’s emergent ostentatious class became the thing to do and bottle stores were beginning to sell beers that no one had ever heard of before, let alone had even tried. When I asked Darling Brew’s Kevin Wood to explain what was going on he said the South African consumer was undergoing a “mindset shift”. Suddenly people wanted to experiment with alternative styles and taste beer that was different from their usual trusty old draught. As Morné Uys from Lakeside Beerworks told me:

“People never used to give a shit about how beer was made… whereas now more and more people are smelling their beers, they’re developing their palates and are genuinely interested in knowing what kind of hops or malt is being used in the beer they drink.”

Jack Black’s Ross McCulloch said that people were thirsty for ‘experiential drinking’; the kind where you have the brewer pouring you a cold one right in front of you while he explains the intricacies behind the making of the beer and what particular ingredients were used in the process. Greg Casey of Banana Jam Café described it as the transition from the ‘single lager man’ to the ‘multi-beer man’ (or multi-beer woman for that matter). In this way it challenged the gendered taboo that beer is only for guys. All-in-all this revolution was a rebellion against the status quo which said beer was something that could only be judged based on how cold it was and how far it was from the grip of your hand. But more ostensibly it showed us that people were willing to pay top dollar to try something new and feel great about doing so.

To help me make sense of all this I turned to the ideas of an early 20th century economist T. Veblen (1857–1929). He’s better known for his concept of conspicuous consumption, which everyone now understands to be the way in which people display their wealth in order to make themselves seem powerful in the eyes of everybody else. It’s a crude interpretation, but with some polishing I found a way to apply it the phenomenon of craft beer. By taking the premises of the old economist’s theory and bringing it into a comparison with craft beer consumption I was able reach a conclusion based on the following argument:

The Argument (Focus. Don’t lose me know!)

1) Underlying modern society is a differentiation between those that work out of the necessity to meet their subsistence and those that can afford the better things in life (where the former is considered a mark of inferiority and the latter a sign of worth).

2) The distinction between the worthy and the unworthy is based on the things people consume and in the particular way they do so (worthiness is in this case determined by an element of wastefulness expended in either the making and procuring of it or in the act of consuming it).

3) And the reason why people consume things through ostentatious display is because they want to compare themselves and their actions with others in the hope of stating their worth and rating themselves higher than the rest.

The Conclusion:

Craft beer (just like any other good which is expensive, novel and desirable) is a product of conspicuous consumption. Because it is produced in a micro-brewed fashion which makes it a little more pricey and harder to get than mass-produced beers, and hence only a few people are able to afford and enjoy it, craft beer is a product of worth and its consumption is a mark of distinction, which differentiates the craft beer drinker from the inferiority of mainstream beer drinkers.

Now there is a lot more that can be said about this argument. Even to me now it seems very simplistic and needing critique. So I want to know what do you think about it? I’d love to hear you’re view on craft beer.

More Info:

If you’re interested in seeing this argument in full then check out the whole study here: [Crafting Distinction: A Look at the Places, People and Aesthetics of Cape Town’s Craft Beer Industry]

Or you can just read the short summary here: [The Cape Town Craft Beer Scene: And Why We Think Craft is Cool]


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