Illustration by Jacob Salamon

How Postmodernism Explains the Rise of Craft Beer

Thomas Ambrosini
Dec 16, 2019 · 6 min read

When the craft beer revolution came, it was swift, and it was merciless. What started as your local gas station selling six-packs of Goose Island quickly turned into aisles of IPAs and sour beers as far as the eye could see. Suddenly, you couldn’t talk to your local hipster without hearing them opine on their new favorite microbrewery. But even more shocking are the numbers coming out of this sea change. In 2008, there were 1,574 craft breweries in the United States. Just ten years later, that number has jumped 475% to 7,346 breweries. And while overall beer sales in America have dipped almost 1% over the past year, craft beer continues to outperform, growing 4% this year.

But if the craft beer boom took you by surprise, you wouldn’t be alone. Major beermakers have been scrambling to play catch up, gobbling up as many independent breweries as possible. All of which raises the question: In an age where virtual monopolies — companies like Amazon — can provide you everything from your morning coffee to your daily dose of television, how did small business and craft beer stage a comeback? The answer is either the bane or joy of many graduate students: postmodernism.

The Foam Rises to the Top

To understand postmodernism, you first have to understand the environment that birthed it. In 1901, U.S. Steel — J.P. Morgan’s baby — was incorporated in the State of New York. It was the first ever company to achieve a billion dollar market cap and would usher in a new age of prosperity. Over the next hundred years, the U.S. experienced an unparalleled economic growth, with GDP adjusted for inflation growing 28-fold, from half a trillion to 14.3 trillion dollars. With this incredible economic expansion came a general belief in progress. As the narrative goes: Science was uncovering the mysteries of the universe while simultaneously winning the war against infectious diseases, companies operated under a Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest, and the world was full of hope.

This is the environment that largely birthed our titans of beer, the likes of AB InBev and MillerCoors. While the 20th century opened with 1,345 breweries, by the 1970s, that numbered had dwindled to 89 breweries owned by 42 companies. In part, this contraction was due to post-Prohibition era laws that raised the costs for brewers. Back in the old days, breweries could own bars, which would allow them to directly sell their beer on the cheap. After the 21st amendment, however, regulations were put in place requiring the sale of alcohol to middlemen distributors, in effect raising the cost of production. In this new environment, only bigger breweries — which could leverage their sheer size to scale cost efficiently — would survive, while smaller ones would either face bankruptcy or buyout. What followed was what 20th century economists would have viewed as obvious; rational buyers would flock to the brewers with the best product at the lowest price. Combine this behavior with a prohibitive regulatory environment and a high cost of entry, and you have yourself a natural monopoly. In short, the rise of the multinational brewing giants in the 20th century was the natural order of things. The world moves towards progress. The cream — or, er, foam in this case — rises to the top.

The Fight Against Answers

If the early 20th century was characterized by a certainty in capitalism and science, the end of it was characterized by the exact opposite: people scared out of their minds that computers were going to have a fit when they see a bunch of zeros in the date. And this uncertainty is what postmodernism is all about: the skepticism in “truth” existing in any one answer. To put an extremely complex topic simply, postmodernism — whether its talked about in terms of architecture or art, literature or economics, or even history — is all about skepticism towards big narratives and capital T “Truth.” Postmodernism, as a result, would go on to question the very notion of “Progress”; after all, what did science do for us if it helped create the atom bomb and kill millions? Broadly speaking, postmodernism corresponded with a fragmentation across different fields and industries. Jackson Pollock mixed and matched mediums and influences, while George Lucas combined a western with sci-fi, and media outlets — from radio to TV and, eventually, the internet — multiplied.

Into this disillusionment with answers comes a reckoning for Big Beer. Research has shown that consumers are distrustful of big brands, with 62% of Americans saying they distrust Fortune 500 companies. Unsatisfied with their corporate overlords, and — in beer especially — their lack of choices, Americans have increasingly turned to microbreweries, with craft beer clawing back over 13% of the total market share. With numbers like these, it’s no surprise that the outlook for craft beer is incredibly rosy, with the industry expecting to reach a total market cap of $509 billion by 2025.

The Dealer Always Wins

But while the craft beer revolution looks like a David and Goliath story, postmodernism posits a potentially darker endgame for the industry. According to philosopher Fredric Jameson, postmodernism’s obsession with fragmentation — and the grab bag of styles, genres, and norms it entails — has stripped art of any larger commentary or meaning. Jameson likens postmodernism’s use of disparate elements to that of “pastiche,” or art that blandly mimics elements of the past without any of the intellectual history or criticism that comes with it. Ultimately, with the help of a media that has silently crept into every part of our lives through technology, multinational corporations use these pastiches to sell us stuff we don’t need.

Of course, it’s not hard to see how Jameson’s critique extends to the world of craft beer. Craft breweries often base their whole identity on unique stylizations. Scotland-based brewery Innis & Gunn, for example, draws on the country’s whisky heritage and brews its flagship beer in former whisky casks. The result, however, is a flavor profile with a strong vanilla, bourbon overtone. The “emptied out stylization” Jameson bemoaned is in full swing here, with beer parading as scotch, when it really tastes like a Kentucky bourbon. Likewise, craft breweries have become increasingly obsessed with adding more and more hops to their beers, to the point where breweries are in a comic race to up the IBUs — essentially a measure of bitterness — of their beers. Which begs the question: Are we consuming a beer for its taste, or for the fact it’s got ten times the IBU of your standard IPA? And while these examples might be less egregious than some breweries out there — including one that uses vaginal bacteria to ferment the yeast and another that incorporates deer antlers into the mix — it’s hard to argue that breweries’ quest for differentiation boils down to looking for the next “thing” to sell consumers.

But perhaps the most worrying thing about Jameson’s critique is how prescient it seems about the rise of big business, especially as multinationals slowly but surely gain a larger portion of the craft scene. Only in the past month, one of the largest craft breweries, New Belgium, was acquired by the Japanese behemoth, Kirin. It joins the ranks of the Craft Brew Alliance and Dogfish Head, both of which were also bought out this year. Big beer’s new strategy seems to be a Unilever approach to branding, with massive conglomerates operating under the cover of smaller brands to sell to a wider consumer base. Just as Jameson warned, West Coast IPAs, Farmhouse Ales, Wheat Ales — they’re all pastiches created by billion dollar companies with the aim of selling more beer. Big business, and in this case Big Beer, always wins.

Wisecrack

The low brow of high brow.

Thomas Ambrosini

Written by

Writer at Wisecrack.

Wisecrack

Wisecrack

The low brow of high brow.

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