All beer is political. Not just subversive jabs like Stone Brewing’s tongue-in-cheek I’m Peach (a double IPA brewed with peaches, 8.8% ABV). Not just when companies like Founders Brewing drop the ball on race relations and doing the right thing for employees (as they did in 2019).
Beer isn’t just political in America. Take the case of Tijuana’s Insurgente Brewing, whose brewery was shut down recently because the brother of the newly installed governor didn’t like living across the street from the noisy tasting room. (The courts have found in Insurgente’s favor for the time being.) Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing just sold to a subsidiary of Japan’s Kirin beer conglomerate, which has been accused of supporting oppression in Myanmar (though the accusations are indirect and Kirin seems to be taking the right steps to address the concerns).
Besides the political issues in beer itself, when else do you have more in-depth (or quasi-deep, at least) political discussions than when you are shooting the breeze at your favorite watering hole?
And you might find that having a beer helps you calm down when you start having contentious political conversations at family holiday gatherings. Having too many beers certainly doesn’t help in those situations, though.
Some people make decisions about what beer to drink based on political considerations. Many devotees of craft beer, for example, refuse to drink beer made by “big beer” conglomerates like Budweiser or Coors. Those international companies seem to focus more on making money than on making good beer.
Quality questions aside, those large corporations have often been caught pulling dirty tricks that disadvantage small businesses. Payola schemes where big breweries effectively force smaller operations out of the marketplace are not uncommon, at least according to the number of legal settlements and fines these large companies have to pay. Big beer has been buying up significant craft breweries and deliberately trying to confuse the consumer by continuing to use the label “craft”— Lagunitas (now owned by Heineken) is one example.
Too often, the industrial farming practices needed to support a massive endeavor like Bud Light are terrible for the environment — overuse of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and so on, the problems of monoculture crops, environments ruined to make room for farms, etc.
One of the objections to Ballast Point when it was sold to Constellation Brands was that Constellation would probably commit the same sorts of fouls as Bud, Coors, and Miller. That turned out to be true: Constellation owns Modelo and a host of other “Mexican” beer brands, and the Modelo factory they are building in Mexicali is involved in a huge fight over corruption and water rights.
Even if it is made by a small, independent craft brewery, I certainly won’t buy a beer that supports or perpetuates misogyny or homophobia.
Part of it comes down to the fact that there are so many good beers in the marketplace right now, there is no reason to spend your money in a way that makes the world a worse place.
The political part of beer buying decisions is not just avoiding supporting bad things — although as Hippocrates said, “First, do no harm.” We can aim a little higher and try to support breweries that do the right thing. Many small, independent craft breweries — including Pure Brewing, for example, which will open a tasting room in Carlsbad in 2020 — participate in the “1% for the Planet” campaign, wherein 1% of their revenue goes to support environmental causes. We can choose breweries that actively make the world a better place, and still get world-class beers.
Many people are not consistent in their thinking on these issues. They support craft beer but occasionally drink beer from an international conglomerate. They care about race and gender issues but don’t pay attention to how the breweries they buy from perform on those issues. They buy things at Sam’s Club even if they call themselves supporters of local small businesses.
You can take it even farther. I sometimes buy beer at my local grocery store — but that’s another huge conglomerate with dubious political and ethical practices. From the fact that they sell (and therefore promote) brands that cause environmental and health damage on a global scale, to the fact that they give priority shelf space to Big Beer, to the food waste they create, chain grocery stores may be ethically no better that Big Beer. Big Grocery is an enemy of justice, too. And Big Oil, and … well, so many things.
Maybe everyone knows all this already. Maybe people have decided not to care. I tend to think that the problem is the “choice architecture” that our society offers us. If there are no grocery stores near us that offer better choices, we choose what is available. That applies to beer as much as to anything else. Making conscious choices to do no harm, or to actually improve the world, is not easy.
The answer seems to be to use public policy to shape choice architecture. The success of California’s regulations on chicken farming are an example of how to do this. Farmers still make money, people still eat eggs, and chickens lead (slightly) better lives.
This will be published too late to make a plea for a plastic-free Christmas, to not buy disposable toys for your kids, to use rechargeable batteries, to avoid unnecessary driving, and to reduce food waste. Maybe next year.
There’s always time to make better choices, in beer and in most things.
Bill Vanderburgh writes the Craft Beer in North County column for Coast News. He started his award-winning blog, CraftBeerInSanDiego.com, in 2016 and has since reviewed every brewery and tasting room in San Diego. He loves sailing almost as much as beer.