This week's WW has a surprisingly controversial review of the new 10 Barrel brewpub in Portland. I did not write the review because I went to the media preview, where I was given free beer and pizza. However, I was not surprised to see that our writer Parker Hall had a great time at the new Pearl location of the Bend-born brewery, which made international news in November when it was acquired by InBev, the Belgian conglomerate best known for owning Budweiser.
Just to lay the rest of my cards on the table here: Last summer I made a point of visiting the original Budweiser brewery while in St. Louis, and I also got pissed off when the company ran that stupid Super Bowl commercial about how beer is not to be fussed over.
When it comes to macro lagers, I am a dedicated Miller High Life fan, but I don't have anything against Bud beyond the fact that I feel many of their products are boring and that they engage in aggressive anti-competitive behavior that has held American beer back for nearly 100 years. I like Bud Light Lime-A-Rita, which is a fun new product that really hits the spot in certain situations, and I do not like that Cindy McCain's Budweiser distributorship funds John McCain's politics. And I think there are some very real questions to be asked about what happened to Don Bolles and why. So that's where I'm coming from. Now, I will explain why it's totally cool for craft beer geeks to be pissed off at 10 Barrel and why is also OK for you to still drink the beer if you want to. First, there's good reason craft beer fans are pissed off about this sale. Craft beer culture is not like tech start-up culture or fashion culture, or any of the other businesses where start-ups are expected to work to build something worth being acquired by a larger corporate entity. There are a lot of reasons for thatâenough to fill a bookâbut I think the biggest ones are that American craft beer culture has always defined itself as a group of outsiders. Those outsiders have a shared system of values, loosely modeled on punk rock and European beer culture. Go to any beer festival, and Portland or elsewhere, and you'll find a bunch of dudes with beards and black t-shirts who, not so long ago, were packed into concert clubs to see their chosen form of underground music. They have a loose dress code that includes t-shirts from obscure brands the mainstream hasn't heard of. And, yes, craft beer fans are snobby about the product they consume, because they truly believe it is a better thing than the mainstream fluff others are consuming. You can agree or not, but these people believe strongly in the artistic output of their niche culture, and now bemoan the fact that their niche culture has been acquired by a larger entity that is otherwise responsible for making a product they despise. In music, it's now all-but-accepted that the indie band and underground rapper you love will sell out. In beer, it's not. American craft brewers are very much expected to maintain an allegiance to the scene that birthed them. And that means that the day you sell a single share of your company to a large corporation, let alone the whole enchilada, you are immediately the subject of mistrust. Your product gets a heightened level of scrutiny, because people want to know whether you're lessening the quality to appeal to less sophisticated consumersâor just because it's a cheaper and easier to make a large batches of crap beer then it is to make exciting and well-executed new recipes. It's worth noting that Budweiser disputes this point. Brian Perkins, the executive who designed their infamous Super Bowl ad, defended his product, and the people who make it, in the backlash. "The prevailing discourse in beer is that small must be good, and big must be bad. We don't accept that. Lager is one of the most difficult styles to brew well, and we have the highest standards of care to get it right. We are owning who we are without apology." This idea that Bud is "the real craft" is ridiculous. Again, I've been to their brewhouse and I did not see humans doing anything. Most of the process is controlled by robots and computers, with the human element reserved to a few very sophisticated brewing scientists in a lab who verify that the machines are not fucking up. That is not in any way easier than what the monks of Westvleteren do at their brewery. Massive computerized product schemes can indeed produce consistent products of decent quality. But I strongly believe that a hand crafted product will be better if it's well-made. The backlash against Bud shows that American craft beer is still a young, feisty tradition. The movement's founding fathers are still drinking with us, and they went through rough times to make this multibillion dollar industry exist. The people who started making beer in their basement back in the late 1970s when homebrewing was finally legalized, and who decided to start making and selling their own beer at a time when it looked more like a hobby then industry are all around: the Widmer Brothers, Art Larrence, McMenamin brothers, John Harris. There was a time just about 30 years ago when it was impossible to sell the American public on a dark beer, let alone a hoppy beer, let alone a sour beer. These guys made that happen. When hot new breweries like 10 Barrel are able to create positive cash flow within the first two years in business, and then sell for a rumored but not yet reported $50 million a few years after that, they are standing on the shoulders of giants. And many people in the Portland craft beer industry personally know those giants. It's not like those giants are hurting, but they're also not getting fabulously rich because they don't want to part with something that they worked to build from the ground up, as opposed to polishing and selling it. So that's all in the background. And I know there are at least a few people in the city who will never buy another 10 Barrel beer again on principle alone. But I bet if you poll most beer geeks in Portland, they will tell you that they're real issue is a concern that 10 Barrel's quality is about to slip. They don't want to drink bland beer, and they worry that the newly Budweiserized brand will stop doing what it does so well. On that point, I think they're mostly wrong. While the bottled products that are going to be distributed from coast-to-coast may indeed have some of the sharper edges rubbed off them in order to appeal to unsophisticated palates in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, the Portland brewpub will probably be even more adventurous. When I talked with brewmaster Whitney Burnside at that opening partyâremember, I was getting a bunch of free beer and pizzaâshe said that she's been told she's just supposed to create interesting and exciting things for Portland customers. She's not making anything for wider distribution, which means she has a lot of freedom and what she plays with.
Because she is backed by such a large and profitable venture, one would assume she will be free to make mistakes, even expensive mistakes. That means she could actually push things further than a lot of locally owned small Portland breweries, where making a few slow-selling batches of an exotic new brew gets the owners worried about buying their next load of grain, and keeping the gas on. So, if that is indeed the plan, 10 barrel is going to be an exciting place for Portland beer geeks. Should you fault beer geeks who feel betrayed by the sale of 10 Barrel? No, you should not. Should beer geeks drink 10 Barrel? I will, because my beer is often free, and I feel an obligation to try everything being made in the city. As for you, this is the perfect subject for a passionate, slightly buzzed debate at your favorite locally owned craft beer bar.