How the craft brewing industry is leading the political revolution

Photo via Getty Images/ValentynVolkov

How the craft brewing industry is leading the political revolution

History + Culture

How the craft brewing industry is leading the political revolution

If there are two statements that can unite Americans in 2018, they are the following: the American political landscape is the worst it’s been in living memory, and American beer is the best it’s ever been, period.

The temptation, of course, is to tie the two together by saying yeah, obviously beer is getting better, we’re all drinking way more because the news is a complete nightmare every day. But there’s another, much more positive connection between these two stories: the craft beer revolution isn’t just a rise in the number of double IPAs and oatmeal stouts on tap – it’s an actual revolution.

It is not a political revolution in the sense that breweries are getting their hands dirty in social justice fights (though some are: Alligator Brewing in Florida offered free beer to customers in exchange for tickets to an event featuring white nationalist Richard Spencer), or donating money to politicians and Political Action Committees, or PACs (though obviously this is happening, too: Ballast Point faced backlash last year when its parent company donated money to Paul Ryan).

What’s revolutionary about today’s breweries is that so many of them are quietly, positively changing the structure of the American economy.

Building more responsible companies

A part of the reason that Americans are in a bit of a bind in the 21st century is because of (and bear with me for a second, I promise I will get back to beer, but I am about to use two very boring words) corporate law. The problem, in short, is this: Americans famously hate being regulated. This hatred is the entire reason the country exists. Instead, Americans would prefer to just be trusted to do the right thing.

But the way traditional corporations are structured can sometimes make that impossible, because corporations are required by law to use their profits to benefit their shareholders. So even if a company’s CEO is, for example, very environmentally conscious, he or she can’t necessarily take some of the profits and put them towards making factories greener, because, as political economist Gar Alperovitz puts it, “If you put too much money into good social programs, you are subject to a legal challenge, because that’s not your job under the corporate charter.”

The state of Maryland came upon a possible solution to this in 2010 by creating the Benefit Corporation, or B corporation. Since then, 32 other states and D.C. have followed suit. The shareholders at a B corporation don’t just consider a company’s financial success, they consider its social and environmental success as well. This may sound like a small change, but it’s huge: it basically allows companies to put other things ahead of sheer profit without the government having to step in to regulate.

And because the craft beer industry has been one of the fastest growing sections of the economy, many have chartered themselves as B corporations. Most of them are small, regional breweries, like North Coast Brewing, Hopworks Urban Brewery, or Brewery Vivant, but among them is the fourth-largest craft brewer in the U.S.: New Belgium.

More breweries are switching to Employee Ownership

New Belgium is the all-star of America’s socially responsible breweries – it’s like Google without the kinda menacing we-know-all-of-your-darkest-secrets-and-definitely-aren’t-selling-that-information-to-anyone” vibe, and employees’ corporate life sounds like your typical Silicon Valley adult playland: they employ carnies, they give everyone that works for them a bike, they do an annual traveling film festival, and so on.

But unlike Silicon Valley (where the carnies and parties are offered in lieu of things like decent health benefits), New Belgium is incredibly progressive in its structure. It’s been 100% employee-owned since 2013, which is impressive, especially considering that the original owners could have instead chosen to sell to major beer corporations like Constellation or InBev for billions of dollars.

So why does that matter? Because making employees company shareholders is much better for employees. Employee-owned companies pay better, are less likely to institute massive layoffs during a downturn, and tend not to outsource work overseas. They are also much better workplaces, regularly showing up in disproportionate numbers on “best place to work” lists. It’s also bizarrely nonpartisan: as John Case in The Atlantic put it, “It is one of the few ideas that liberals and conservatives seem to agree on. The left favors spreading the wealth. The right wants to create more capitalists. With employee ownership, they can both get their way.”

Employee-ownership has been a growing trend in America across the board, but breweries in particular seem to take to it, to the point where the Great American Beer Festival has hosted seminars on converting breweries to employee-ownership. Aside from New Belgium, prominent breweries that have switched to the model include Harpoon, Odell, Deschutes, Left Hand, Heartland, Voodoo, and New Glarus.

Going Green

Perhaps least surprisingly, but most importantly, breweries are way ahead of the curve on fighting climate change. A big part of this is out of necessity: climate change has contributed to an increasing number of droughts in the American northwest, which is the country’s largest hop-producing region. So it is legitimately a threat to their businesses if hops suddenly become scarce and expensive.

Once again, the leader of the pack is New Belgium (which is really just showing off at this point). A few decades back – before it was employee-owned – New Belgium’s employees voted to forego their year-end profit-sharing bonuses so the company could switch to wind power. The company also has an internal energy tax, and donates the proceeds to conservation organizations.

But it is not limited to New Belgium: Sierra Nevada, for example, relies on solar power, and perhaps most awesomely, captures the carbon dioxide released while fermenting its beer and uses that same carbon dioxide to carbonate its drinks. Kona Brewing in Hawaii captures the condensation on its air conditioners and uses that to water the gardens that grow ingredients in its specialty beers. Great Lakes in Cleveland does local cleanups, sends used grain to farmers to use as feed, and runs its delivery trucks on the vegetable oil used in its brewpub. Abita in Louisiana treats its own waste water and uses the gas captured from it to heat its boilers. Alaskan Brewing, on the other hand, heats its boilers with the spent grain used to make its beer – so the brewers are actually making beer with beer.

It would be hyperbole to suggest that breweries are saving America, but it is not excessive to suggest that America’s beer renaissance is doing more good for us than just allowing us an avenue to drink to forget. By focusing on their communities, by behaving ethically, and by finding creative ways to take care of the environment, they are showing us that there are actually some pretty cool, nonpartisan ways that we could start to fix things – and, you know, have a drink or two in the process.

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