Michael Kiser probably has the best bird’s eye view of the craft beer movement in the US of anyone.  He is the founder of Good Beer Hunting, a fascinating blog which through writing, podcasts and beautiful photography, has introduced its readers to the dazzling diversity of brewers in the US and elsewhere.  He also advises breweries from the very large to the very small, helping them hone their story, their offer and their messaging.  He sees that side of his work as being “devoted to helping craft brewers think about the future and grow”.   As part of the research I am doing, I am looking at the craft beer sector as a great example of a space in which the imagination can flourish, indeed in which imagination is a pre-requisite to flourishing.

Michael argues that the brewing industry in the US has gone through many cycles of more, or less, innovation, but that the recent explosion of craft brewing represents, as he told me, “the biggest upswing we’ve ever seen in craft beer which has a lot of people excited, and a lot of people nervous, about its longevity”.  I wanted to pick Michael’s brains about how, and why, craft beer has provided a space, very few of which exist elsewhere in our culture today, where the imagination is cherished, flourishes and, indeed, is a central ingredient of a brewery’s success.

What is it culturally about the craft beer world that really invites imagination in a way that the previous model didn’t?  How has it given people permission to be imaginative?

Yeah, it’s interesting.  A lot of craft beer consumers think that the inventiveness and the imagination comes from the brewer themselves.  They invented this thing and it’s so popular based on its merits alone.  It’s a great idea – of course it’s popular and it’s new and it’s changing things.  But in reality brewers since prohibition have been trying to do new and interesting things.

Some perhaps were more restrained than others, but even the largest corporate brewers have tried to introduce something as basic as a hoppy amber ale and because they found no consumer for it, it just dies on the vine.  So I would give as much credit to the drinker who is interested in these things as I would in the producer in being able to sustainably and viably produce them for that audience.  There’s a share of responsibility and a shared imagination that happens there.

Credit: Eva Deitch.

I would equate it to someone walking through a gallery and seeing a painting that really speaks to them and having some sort of resonance with it.  That’s the perfect moment of the viewer and the artist’s intent finding something of common value between them.  Until that moment, that painting might as well have not existed when it comes to perception of its imagination.  There could have been intent there.  There could have been a genius moment, but until it gets read or until it gets perceived in a way that’s meaningful to an audience, that magical sort of transactional part of the imagination doesn’t really exist.

Going back to the beer example, if somebody’s producing a very fascinating barrel aged beer and it’s inventive and new and breaks through into a new area of thought on the brewing side, if there’s not someone there that thinks that’s interesting and is interested in buying it and consuming it, it might as well not exist because it will never find its way into the world in a meaningful way.  It can only exist as intellectual fodder in the back of someone’s mind.  I’m really interested in that place where the consumer and the producer find commonality.

You’re somebody who, through the work that you, has a good sense across the sector in the US.  I wonder who are the people who really stand out for you as the people who are taking a really imaginative approach to the beers that they make?  

Shaun Hill of Hill Farmsted is absolutely one of them.  I don’t think I can emphasise his importance enough.  But there are some others maybe in his vein that really capture my imagination as well.  One of them is Propolis Brewing, and forgive me, I can’t remember his name at the moment.  He’s a tiny little operation outside of Seattle, by about an hour, hour and a half, on the Peninsular.  A very tiny operation with its own taproom.  He’s making extremely traditional styles, like Kriek and Lambic and things like that, all barrel fermented.  He’s foraging some of the ingredients locally, using a lot of things like pine needles and herbs.

Some of the things that he grows himself and he’s just making these really delicate beautiful profiles that you simply don’t find anywhere else really.  I find him to be fascinating, and he treats it and sells it a lot more like wine.  Every bottle looks almost exactly the same with just the name being slightly different.  A big part of that is because he’s not attached to the commercial market the same way a lot of brewers are, where their brands need to jump off a shelf.  He sells it all through memberships in a very personal way, and a very little bit of it goes to the shelf.  The modesty of his ambition affords him the ability to do things in a very different way than he otherwise would have to do as a commercial brewery.

Similarly there’s one called Mad Fritz.  He’s a vintner.  He’s a winemaker for David Arthur Wines up in Pritchard Hill.  He’s taken his winemaking approach to beer making, but he’s gone to a radical extreme with getting barley producers in his area to grow different strains that he can use and floor malt himself.  He’s sources water from – last I heard – seven different water sources, a mix of water reservoirs and wells.

He’s growing some hops in the area, foraging wild hops and again he’s barrel fermenting everything and he’s trying to produce everything as close to being an origin product as possible.  His end goal is to drill down on that possibility, just to see if it’s viable and interesting and what he can do with it.  I find that to be fascinating.  He’s very much barely able to balance the commercial viability of that with his personal imagination as to what beer can be.  I think he’s barely getting by at the moment, and I think he probably oscillates back and forth on a daily basis as to which one is going to be more important that day.

And then there’s one of my clients, Brewery Bhavana, in Raleigh, North Carolina, who is taking a very traditional approach with the beer.  It’s Belgian-inspired but also a little bit of the new wave hoppy stuff and kind of balancing that out, but they’re looking at the beer experience as the way that they’re going to express their imagination.  One of the owners is a Laotian immigrant.  Him and his sister own a Laotian restaurant in Raleigh, which has already been an exotic unexpected entry into the food scene in Raleigh.

And now with the beer side they’re pairing that environment with a tasting room for these really beautiful culinary inspired beers with dim sum, a cuisine he’s intimately familiar with, and a flower shop and a community book store in the centre of it that create this entirely unique environment and scenario for beer drinking in 2017 American craft beer.

When I went to visit for the first time this past week, I was astonished at the diverse make up of people in that taproom, having a craft beer experience in America right now, with a decided lack of neck[?] beard hobbyist culture that we more associate with these kind of stand-out breweries.  The room was filled with young people, old people, more women that I’ve probably ever seen in any taproom that I’ve walked into, and it just had a completely different vibe as a result.  That to me is somebody with an imagination for where beer fits into a larger context as well.

So we’ve these two models, the very commercial, and the very artisan.  Are they a completely different models that appeal to completely different people?  Where do they meet, or do they not?

I see people like Bad Fritz and Propolis and Hill Farmstead as being almost a third layer in this world of craft beer between macro and craft, and then what I might call artisanal for lack of a more specific word.  That artisanal layer is very, very thin.  It’s such a small percentage of the beer that gets produced.  It’s almost not even worth thinking about as part of the world of craft beer, except that they probably share a consumer.

They’re doing their damnedest to build a business model that can support this, even by the thinnest of margins because they’re interested in as little compromise as possible.  Whereas I think a traditional craft brewer is probably more the flip of that.

What does the spread of that kind of idea outside of the beer world look like in the US?

I think in general in the US beer has been part of a longer movement of people getting interested in where their products come from and who makes them, and who owns them, and the sort of ethos by which they are produced.  There’s a much broader audience for that in general.  However, I think in craft beer there is a very large segment of our audience that is hobbyist driven, almost, to where craft beer is really the singular thing in their lives that they care about in this way.

They don’t necessarily think about their coffee or the food that they’re eating or where they shop in a broader sense having anything to do with that.  So as much as they care about independence and craftsmanship in the ethos of craft beer, they’re not necessarily extending those values out into the other things that they experience on a daily basis.  It’s quite isolated for them and I find that to be really puzzling.  It doesn’t seem to have much of a horizontal impact on their lives.

Whereas people that come from food, or other beverages like wine, or if they’re somebody who’s been interested in coffee for a long time, craft beer has become an extension.  A horizontal incremental thing that they can start to think about with those same values.  I tend to see two sets of mind sets in the world when it comes to values like that, that is people who see things in discrete instances – they don’t necessarily connect with each other, so what I care about in my beer I might not necessarily care about in my coffee or my food, or anything else – and then there are people who have a universal perspective on how the world should work, or could work, or maybe it does work for the best.  They find everything they can in their life to apply that to.

There’s a discreet vs universal approach to things.  I think craft beer now, especially being almost 20% of the market, of course we have both of those kinds of people drinking that beer, and so some of them are really isolated by the sub-culture of it, and its very hobbyist and collector mentality, maybe similar to indie music in a way.  Then there are plenty of people now as we break into the mainstream audience who are interested in beer as a continuation of things they already care about in their lives.  That’s actually maybe where I would reframe one of Shaun’s opinions about something gets lost when everybody’s doing it and there’s a lot of money in it.  I don’t know if something gets lost so much as so much gets gained, that there’s less distinction.

When something as important as independent, locally produced, micro economy craft beer breaks into the mainstream you suddenly have such a gigantic audience thinking about and sharing and discussing these kinds of things.  They can’t possibly do it with the same direct understanding of what inspired it in the first place.  It’s kind of a game of telephone.  They can only care about some of the highlight words, like craft or flavour, and things like that.  To me that doesn’t necessarily diminish power or the importance of some of those original inspiration points, because of course those people still exist.  They’ve only gotten more informed about what you’re doing as a producer.

I don’t think Shaun’s original audience who really resonated with what he was doing as an inspired producer has changed at all, there’s just more people thinking about and drinking and sharing his beer than ever before.  So the signal to noise ratio has perhaps changed.  But the absolute numbers of the people who care about it in the way that he would hope they do, I don’t think that’s changed.  But it’s probably very difficult on a daily basis for someone like him to tell the difference.

Is craft beer more rooted in a progressive kind of niche?  Is there a sense that craft beer is moving beyond that?  If I was to stop at some roadside bar in Texas, would they be selling craft beer now, or would that be seen as something that is quite a San Francisco beardy kind of thing?

Craft beer in the broadest definition of that term has absolutely penetrated every part of our drinking experience in the US now.  I’ll never forget being near the Salton Sea at a Dive Bar in the deserts of the South West and finding Lagunitas IPA on tap.  For any mainstream consumer that is a craft beer that has penetrated into a place where we never thought we’d see it.  We’re seeing it at baseball stadiums now.  Some of the larger craft brewers are getting sometimes exclusive deals to serve craft beer in one corner of the park where prior to that it would have been nothing but a Bud, Miller or a Coors product.  Now they’re side by side in those same spaces.

So absolutely, there’s almost no place that’s been left untouched by craft beer in the US at this point.  At that point it becomes an argument about what really is and is not craft.  Or what represents the best of craft.  Which to me is a bit of a silly argument to make when you’re still talking about that getting that first handle at the dive bar in the desert.  Everything requires a starting place somewhere, somehow.  And whether or not that ultimately changes that community’s understanding of craft beer is debateable.  I think that’s still a long way to go.

Craft beer is at most 20% of the market right now in terms of dollars versus volume, which I think is around 15% perhaps.  So it’s kind of low.  As ubiquitous as craft beer has become, it is not the default.  It just happens to be a little bit everywhere to different degrees.  Now if you’re in an urban part of Chicago where I’m from, it’s almost the exception when you see a Budweiser handle anywhere.  It’s kind of reversed in that way, which makes craft producers themselves competitors of each other.  Because there’s no more Bud, Miller or Coors handles that they could conceivably steal.  Or earn away.  That’s when that small 15-20% of the market starts to almost turn on itself in a way.

They become competitors of each other and having been part of the industry that has been so collaborative for so long, I don’t think it necessarily has the emotional capacity to be good, fair open competitors or really be able to live with that idea on a daily basis.  It starts to pull them apart and ‘the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend’ mentality takes over, so we’re starting to see a lot of division and discord and we’re losing a little bit of the intellectual centre of what craft beer is intending to be.

I see that as a limiting factor on the overall growth of the industry but long term I don’t see that as being hurtful towards somebody like Shaun who I see as being just the smallest and thinnest of niches within that segment, that can really probably disconnect itself from the entire conversation of craft beer and still be its own singular sort of inspired thing without having to worry about any of that amount discord.

If you were starting out now, if you were a young person coming into it now, and wanting to start a brewery, would you feel constrained by the world around you and its expectations, or do you think people are coming in feeling really free to experiment and do really unusual imaginative things?

We see both, for sure.  Anybody who’s hoping that their success is going to be dependent on their ability to say they’re a craft brewer is perhaps certainly limiting their imagination as to what’s possible.  Most of the clients that I help start up these days, we don’t spend any time worrying about craft beer or AB Inbev.  We spend most of our time trying to articulate their individual point of view, and what makes them interesting and unique, and how to translate that through both the beer and the brand and the experience for their customer.  Because without that, they really have nothing they can build on, because the definition of craft is going to continue morph over time.

It will perhaps flatten out and lose its meaning altogether, and then all those people that were coming to you because you defined yourself as a craft brewer suddenly have nothing to really build on.  They don’t know anything more about you than you considered yourself craft, and that can become very boring over time.  Whereas if they’re building a real identity based on who they are and what they care about and the things that bring them joy, that consumer who knows you on a more intimate level will constantly be able to evolve with you and be interested in what you’re doing.

I spend a lot of time with my clients digging more into the specificity of what they’re doing and who they are, and the ability to adapt that over time as they tell a much broader, bigger, more interesting story about themselves.

Thank you.  That’s all my questions.  I don’t know if you had any last thoughts about imagination and craft brewing that I didn’t ask you a question to elicit?

As much as I see imagination coming through in the beers that people are making, I see it coming through in the business models and the experiences that they’re offering.  To me this is still somewhat of a golden age in what’s possible from an imaginative standpoint in craft beer.  I just think it’s being deployed in this phase of our development anyway, as it becomes very competitive and a bit noisy out there, that imagination and energy is being spent on different aspects of the business that up until now we probably thought was a bit mundane and not worth spending that kind of creative energy on, and not being inventive.

Everybody was focused on the beer itself.  Now that that’s somewhat table stakes for a lot of people, we’re starting to see that energy channelled into so many different aspects of what it means to be a brewer and a business.  So I’m pretty excited about the diversity that I see in that aspect of craft beer as well.