Last week, I took a beer vacation to the California coast (kind of like “Sideways,” but with less of the middle-aged male angst), to tour some of its breweries and to taste its local liquid bread. On our first day, we toured the gardens of Stone Brewing—a 15-year-old upstart now known as one of the US's most preeminent breweries, famous for its bold IPAs that are indigenous to the San Diego region ( Green Flash's West Coast IPA and Ballast Point's Sculpin are two more excellent examples of this style). A few miles down the road in San Marcos, is Lost Abbey and Port Brewing, the former creating inspired Belgian ales. In Orange County is another brewery experimenting with Belgian styles and exotic, food-driven flavors, the aptly-named The Bruery. While the recent resurgence of craft brewing in Los Angeles with Eagle Rock Brewery and Golden Road Brewing leading the way, makes the city a little more desirable to visit (I kid, I kid ... kinda).
Each beer we tasted during its trip has its own style and tone. As did each brewery. And it got me to thinking about the relationship between music and beer ...
|Stone Brewing Co.|
Bloodshot and beer go hand in hand. Like, duh. Besides a catalog of drinking songs spanning more than 18 years, most people like to enjoy a Bloodshot live show with a cold one in hand. On the merch table, artists hock custom coozies (or coolies, as I’ve been told “coozie” is also slang for vagina in some parts of the US … who knew?) while Jon Langford has designed beer labels for the venerable East Coast brewery Dogfish Head. At our annual SXSW day party at Yard Dog Gallery, we’ve been known to pal up with a craft brewer to help quench the thirst of throngs of sun-kissed attendees (past brewery friends have included Lagunitas, Oskar Blues, Goose Island, Half Acre and Shiner).
We get the culture of craft beer. But we also get the industry of craft beer. And I don’t mean “industry” in the weasley way to describe ponytailed A&R dudes in shiny suits, I mean industry—hard working and clever people, starting independent businesses to provide locally-sourced and produced artisan goodies.
Blah blah blah. The ideas of “artisan” and “farm to table” movements have become eye-rolling statements—a punchline to describe a buzzy marketing word aimed at urban hipster yuppies (and in some cases, it’s warranted). But the triumph of a small business in this age of ConAgras, InBevs and other corporations with vaguely Orwellian names is no joke.
|Lost Abbey and Port Brewing / Pizza Port|
The parallels between the independent music scene of the early 90s (and what still exists today, sigh) and the fledgling craft beer scene of today is pretty striking. In a time when six major labels dominated the industry (BTW, that number is down to three, THREE, today), upstarts like Merge, Matador, Lookout!, and Sub Pop were experiencing mainstream radio play and retail chart success. When Epitaph released The Offspring’s Smash in 1994, it went on to sell 12 million copies worldwide, making it the most successful album released by an independent label in history.
In Chicago, Lounge Ax, Wax Trax! Records, Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey and Drag City were the big names in a city rich in independent industry. Rob and Nan found that artists in Chicago brought together punk rock and country music like few others had done before—and released a compilation of songs from local rabble-rousers that would become Bloodshot Records’ first catalog entry. SPIN declared our city “The Next Seattle” — and a photo of Jon Langford and Sally Timms in front of Bloodshot HQ ran in the glossy.
Today, all eyes are on Chicago once again, as the craft beer scene experiences massive growth. Beyond established breweries like Half Acre, Metropolitan and Two Brothers, there are more than a dozen new breweries readying to open in 2012, while big names like Lagunitas and Three Floyds have announced they’ll be putting down stakes in Chicago in 2013. At last week’s World Beer Cup in San Diego, Revolution Brewery brought home two gold medals—they’ll celebrate it with the grand opening of a new production brewery around the corner from our office at the end of the month.
It’s an exciting time to be a beer drinker in Chicago—one can grab a growler of a fresh release from Half Acre on Lincoln Ave, and it’s like nothing else anyone is drinking in the country, just like further down on Lincoln Ave in the 90s, you could catch The Cocktails on stage at Lounge Ax and get that same feeling that, Yes, this is special. And it’s only happening in Chicago (or at least that’s how I imagine it went down, since Lounge Ax closed before I turned 21. Sniff). All is very, very good right now in the US craft beer scene and here in Chicago.
|Bruery Provisions / Old Orange and Bruery Tasting Room|
But like the independent music industry faced its challenges in the 90s, so does craft beer. In the $100 billion dollar beer business, craft breweries only make up about 9% of the market, with The Big Three dominating the rest. Hey, kind of sounds like the music industry, right?
If you watch the documentary “Beer Wars” ( available for instant streaming on Netflix), you learn that distribution in the beer industry is just as Draconian as it is in the music industry (but at least, we as a record label have the option to distribute straight to the retailer). And just like the major labels tried to catch up with the indies (by either rolling out misguided marketing plans or just buying out indie labels), the Big Three in beer are doing the same. Last year, ABInBev bought out the grandaddy of Chicago craft breweries, Goose Island. It’s bittersweet, but as long as they keep making quality beer, who cares? … Matador didn’t put out shitty records when Capitol co-owned the label for a few years in the mid-90s (Gawd, that Liz Phair album wasn’t that bad). Besides, that big-ass check has already allowed GI to significantly increase its famous barrel program and I’m sure it helped Matador give resources to artists it couldn’t have before.
|Golden Road Brewing / Eagle Rock Brewery - Los Angeles, CA|
The beer industry nearly flatlined after Prohibition, when only a handful of the breweries forced to suspend production came back after the 21st amendment was repealed. In 1982, there were only about 50 breweries operating nationwide. But then a revival started stirring and crafty brewers were putting out a product that began to surpass the quality of anything found on supermarket shelves. Today there are nearly 2,000 US craft breweries in operation.
In a way, those numbers are promising for the indie music industry as well—even though the indies have fallen on hard times as of late, upstarts will continue to innovate, and we’ll hopefully see a resurgence like we did in the 90s. It may take another 30 years—and the way we listen to music may not be the same—but just like people weren’t content with drinking shitty fizzy yellow beer, they’ll get fed up with the candy-assed country and Autotuned-to-death Top 40 that saturates the radio waves.
In short: Buy local. Drink local. Listen local. And kill Justin Bieber.