Craft beer's "99% asshole-free" myth
Some final thoughts on Worst Beer Blog's departure, and that (in)famous industry phrase
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Editor’s note, 4/16/2021: This essay was one of the most popular Fingers editions to date, so I recorded a bonus audio version for those of you who prefer listening to reading. Enjoy!
If you’re reading this, you already know. Or maybe you don’t, in which case, allow me to inform you of the death of one Worst Beer Blog, a set of social media accounts that operated as sort of tabloid-cum-clearinghouse for the petty dramas and serious scandals that shaped the online beer discourse for the better part of a decade.
In late March, the guy (I think it was a guy; he went by the pseudonym Peter David when I DM’d with while reporting this story for MEL Magazine—RIP—about boogaloo bois’ hard seltzer obsession) behind the WBB accounts voluntarily deactivated them, going dark on all platforms and leaving behind tens of thousands of confused followers both inside the craft beer establishment and in the broader American drinking public.
I wrote a column examining the accounts’ split legacy for VinePair, and reached out to some industry types for comment. One particular phrase kept coming up: “99% asshole-free.” Here’s a representative example, pulled from my DMs with Austin Beerworks’ co-founder Michael Graham (emphasis mine throughout):
[WBB] showcased a dark side to an industry that likes to represent itself as a ‘99 percent asshole-free,’ passion-driven, creative utopia.
As far as WBB’s legacy goes, I think that’s more or less right, and I argued as much in the column, which, again—please read it! But something that occurred to me after filing that piece: younger and more casual craft beer enthusiasts may not know the backstory of that “99% asshole-free” reference. That’s a shame, because the trajectory of that claim (which is fairly notorious within craft beer business circles at this point) is handy to keep in mind when separating craft brewing’s foundational myths from its operational realities over the past decade.
The quote itself is usually attributed to Sam Calagione, the charismatic founder of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. The underlying idea is that America’s scrappy craft brewers—unlike the cutthroat multinational macrobrewers monopolizing the country’s tap handles and shelf space with cheap adjunct lagers—were all pals with one another, and mostly good people to boot. As Calagione himself put it to DCist back in 2011:
We say our industry is 99 percent asshole free. So I probably do forget one of every hundred names of the person who was underwhelming. But everyone’s so nice in this industry so I look forward to seeing them a second time.
In 2011, Dogfish Head was one of around 2,200 U.S. craft breweries. These days, we’re closing in on 8,800 (see chart below.) I can’t say I was covering the industry closely at that point, because I was a fresh-out-of-college editorial assistant eating 4-for-$1 dumplings for lunch and dinner and spending my scant free time devising new and more creative ways to obliterate myself on batch quantities of cheap liquor. But the claim that craft brewers shared a sense of us-vs.-them camaraderie certainly rings true with reports from and on that era.
(Notably Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out, by Josh Noel of the Chicago Tribune, which focuses on Anheuser-Busch InBev’s decade-long shopping spree. Coincidentally, said spree began with the megabrewer’s acquisition of Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company in 2011.)
This was the era of the true believer; the Davids against the Big Beer Goliath. Craft brewers in 2011 argued, ad nauseam and with confidence, that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and helped one another with expertise and raw ingredients to grow craft beer’s share of the U.S. beer market, which that year clocked in at just under 6%. (In 2020 it was just over 12%.) To the extent that anyone ever fully bought into the idea that craft brewing was a “movement” and not a marketing expression, they could be forgiven for still believing they were right a decade ago.
As the intervening years unfolded and craft beer became big business in its own right, that would change. “There is something about craft that’s more collegial,” Benj Steinman, the publisher of trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights, told me in 2015 for a feature on the situation for Thrillist, “but it’s also competitive. And that’s coming more to the forefront with time.” And so it was: craft breweries flooded the market, competing with one another for drinkers’ attention and “share of throat” (one of your humble Fingers editor’s least-favorite industry neologisms!) when they’d only previously had to fight the macros. With camaraderie straining, the industry’s ills—its treatment of women and minorities, its exploitative labor conditions, its awkward correlation to gentrification and displacement—got a lot harder to ignore.
David Berg @schellbrewerRemember that old quote that "craft beer is 99% asshole free?" It was never true. It was marketing.
I’ve written about this a lot, and there’s no need to rehash it all in this newsletter (though if you’re interested in reading your pal on the matter, I suggest this, this, and this.) But as it pertains to WBB, the point is that as craft brewing became more of a business throughout the past decade, the claim that it was, or could have ever been, “99% asshole-free” revealed itself as ever more delusional.
[Editor’s note: Yes there are also plenty of wonderful people who work in the industry. Please do not email me angrily proclaiming this, as it is very much Not The Point!]
I don’t remember exactly when David launched WBB—he created its Twitter account in 2013, and the Wayback Machine has crawls of WorstBeerBlog.com dating back to 2016—but it really hit its stride towards the close of last decade, and came on particularly strong in 2020. This was a particularly bad time to be a true believer. Within the beer business, macrobrewers and private-equity players pretty successfully coopted and commodified the craft beer “revolution,” while hype beer and hard seltzer undercut category boosters’ bright-eyed theses about American drinkers’ unquenchable thirst for quality and locality.
Outside it, the Trump administration picked at the country’s scabbed-over socioeconomic and cultural wounds for four years, then the coronavirus pandemic jammed its thumb in each and every one of them. Taken together, these developments shredded craft brewing’s already-frayed sense of exceptionalism.
Rather than railing against the corporate suits beyond the gates, industry commentators have been increasingly confronted by—and in the case of WBB and a few others, confronting—the rot eating away at craft brewing’s sterling self-image. That can’t have been a pleasant paradigm shift to come to grips with for one-time true believers (which, judging by early blog posts with headlines like “Corporate Beer Sucks,” David may have been.) But at some point, the American craft brewing business, and the larger community of enthusiasts that orbits it, has to grow up. And what is recognition that the craft beer business has as many assholes—and attracts as many—as any other business, if not growth? The first step to fixing anything is acknowledging it’s broken, et cetera.
So death to craft beer’s “99% asshole-free” myth, says I, and remember: your Fingers editor is always all-ears for tip-offs of beer business bullshit, and would love to hear from you.
The bottom shelf
Programming note: Thanks to everyone who joined me, Jessica Infante (Brewbound) and Kate Bernot (Good Beer Hunting/Craft Beer & Brewing) on Clubhouse the other week. We’re doing another edition of BEER BYLINERS this Wednesday (4/14) at 7pm EST to talk about the beer industry’s latest headlines, trends, and whatever else comes up. If you need an invite to the app, let me know—I have a few extra. See you then!
Source call: I am looking to speak with college kids (current or recently graduated) about hard seltzer. This is for a store and not a joke, so if you are one or you know one, please get in touch!