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Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Somewhere Between Passion and Greed

We stick by the idea that most brewers, or most craft brewers — cut it how you like — are motivated more by passion than greed.

But let’s unpack that word ‘passion’ a bit: it doesn’t necessarily mean gibbering, cultish fervour. How many people are really passionate about what they do to pay the rent? But plenty of people have jobs they find interesting, stimulating and enjoyable; and, if they didn’t, would probably go and do something else instead.

That’s not to say that someone who starts a brewing business doesn’t hope that, at the very least, the venture will cover its costs, and that they don’t set out with the dreams of making a few quid down the line.

But there are lots of ways to make a  living other than brewing, and many leave better paid, more secure jobs in IT, accountancy and engineering to elope with the mash tun, which suggest that, on some level, desire is trumping cold logic. The vast majority of people who choose to do it presumably, at the very least, like beer and enjoy the process of making it.

Related: we’ve said before that the blanket assertion ‘beer people are good people’ is facile, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see plenty of evidence of the brewing industry being relatively more collaborative and collegiate than some others.

One reason for that is expressed by American brewer Lenny Mendonca in this article (via Joe Stange):

“Not being an asshole is good for business.”

The appearance of friendly relations with peers is essential in a section of the market which (rightly or wrongly, hippy dippy or otherwise) values ‘niceness’: the immediate commercial edge that comes from slagging off and stitching up competitors is deferred in favour of a longer term advantage, which also just happens to make life a bit more pleasant for those involved.

There is plenty of ground between starry-eyed idealism and pure cynicism and, as in most areas of life, very few people inhabit the wild extremes.

7 replies on “Somewhere Between Passion and Greed”

I wouldn’t say wanting to make a decent living for yourself counted as “greed” (not that you are suggesting that).

But clearly if making money is your prime objective, brewing isn’t the career choice for you.

I don’t understand the reticence to acknowledge that beer can be and often if very profitable for the well run brewery. Doesn’t mean there are not the eager who botch it through a combination of bad luck or bad business sense. But historically and currently there is all evidence needed to know that many do very very well. This is not a function of greed. It’s the reality of selling alcohol to willing buyers. One can get quite keen on that. Passionate even because of all the ways to make a very good living it’s one of the most pleasant.

Folk can get confused because brewing takes investment and time to have the best chance to become very profitable. An old pal who has likely passed on was a pork farmer. During a down turn where wholesale prices went from 1.25$ a pound to 60 cents he shared with me that he was fine as his cost per pound was something like 40 cents a pound. His land was paid off, he grew most of his own feed and his livestock bred itself. Breweries are like that. Pay off your land and core equipment half a decade ago or better still convert an existing facility from textiles to beer as one pal did and you are set… as long as you are not stupid and your luck does not turn. Short of war or temperence you should make a very good living and take long holidays in the sun like many established US craft brewers do according to their Facebook posts.

Secret. You know who are the most collegial folk? We lawyers. You have to be a right arsehole not to get a helpful hint, a shared document template. We call each other “my friend” in court for a very good reason. I expect bakers and mechanics are the same. I know every other florist up in my city growing up would never worry about asking my mother’s shop for help in a pinch knowing what goes around comes around.

If folk were rushing into good beer because of passion, it would last until the first infection hit and the fifth debt payment came due. Or when your wife walked out. Money is good and good beer is a good way to acquire it.

It seems to me that many, if not most of the people who’ve opened breweries in the last few years have done it mainly for the money. Not in a I’ll-get-rich-quick sort of way (well, at least not too many, because that would be stupid), but as a way to set up their own business and become economically independent doing something they like and (believe) are good at.

They may feel a certain degree of passion when getting into it, but passion teds to wear off, rubbed by the sandpaper of reality. And that is a good thing, as passion also can make people blind.

Those that become successful are the ones who understand that making good beer is not the most important part of the business.

With that more restrained definition of ‘passion’ you could say all the brewers I’ve met are passionate about beer. And this is as true for large breweries as it is for small.

I have spoken to several brewers of what is derisively called “macro swill” by “craft“ enthusiasts, and they are all very proud of their product. Shrug.

The other thing this topic reminds me of is the late 70’s show “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”, especially the excitement of his boss at Sunshine Desserts in the first few episodes. Now that’s passion.

This reminds me of an article in What’s Brewing a while ago by Georgina Wald, Fullers’ Corporate(!) Communications Manager. She’d previously worked for Domino’s & described an atmosphere of hyped-up passion for the product and for success in selling it, with semi-playful national rivalries within the company and total hostility to other pizza companies. The atmosphere at Fuller’s came as a bit of a culture shock – so far from jealously guarding their trade secrets and speaking of rival brewers with contempt, the Fuller’s team made a positive effort to share what they knew and help other brewers.

I think it’s partly down to the nature of the product. A pizza is a pizza is a pizza, and nothing much is likely to happen to the size of the overall market – the only way you can ‘improve’ your pizza is to tweak the recipe so as to give you a temporary edge over somebody else. Beer – there’s good beer and better beer, traditional beer and innovative beer, good innovative beer and and better innovative beer – there’s no end to what can be done with it, and there are lots of people interested in taking it a step further. And the market for decent beer is still a small subset of the market for beer overall, so there’s plenty of room for growth, for differentiation and for synergies. If Camden started producing cask beer it wouldn’t damage Fuller’s sales – it might even help them.

Everyone’s got bills to pay, and you’d have to be crazy (or very rich) to go into commercial brewing not planning to make a living out of it. ‘Passion’ tends to be counterposed to commercial realism in a way I find rather suspect. When I hear something like (made-up example) We just don’t care how many different hops we have to use to make our IPA awesome! I think “actually, you do care, and I suspect you care enough to have designed your price structure accordingly”. Passion over commerce gets you Factory Records putting out a million-selling single in a sleeve so expensive to produce that they lost money on every sale.

What I do think beer people tend to have, though, is enthusiasm, curiosity, open-mindedness and willingness to share – qualities that can seem quite ‘passionate’ but are actually quite different from the “everything (we do) is awesome!” mentality. Looking back I think this was why BD annoyed me so much when they went keg & started blethering about CAMRA – apart from the fact that I thought their cask beers were really good, that is. There’s “let’s try it this way – what do you think?” (enthusiasm), then there’s “we’re doing it this way and it’s superb – you probably won’t even like it!” Obviously it’s just marketing, but it tends to set up BD (and their chosen collaborators) in a certain kind of relationship to the rest of the industry – less like Fuller’s, more like Domino’s.

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