It’s Indie Beer Day1 here in Australia, which seems like a weirdly appropriate time to reflect on why I can’t really bring myself to care about “independence” itself. Living in a country where that word is (now) the go-to organising principle for a lot of lobbying, events, and branding — certainly much more than it is back home in New Zealand — I’ve realised how it leaves me cold. Sure, “independence” loosely correlates with some things I do care about, but the link is so flimsy that it just doesn’t make for a good guide to follow or banner to wave. As it happens, most of my favourite beers are from independent breweries, and, all else being equal, I’ll probably pick one over a non-indie alternative — but all else is very rarely equal.
When I’m learning about a new brewery over here, asking friends and colleagues about it, I’m always curious to know if it’s independent,2 but what I really want to know is whether they’re worth supporting: are they good people, is it a well-behaved business? Despite the pandemic, this is still a boomtime for your beer options, and — as I’ve noted before — that gives you plenty of room to be picky about these things. Indeed, perhaps the pandemic makes it even more important to think more deeply than simple slogans about who gets your money. In making my own choices, I care vastly more about a company’s actions than its structure.
There’s a lot of positive values that get associated with “independence” that don’t have any inherent connection to it, despite the best efforts of marketers and the overlaps that happen to exist in the wild. Look at what achieved forty percent support in last year’s Australian Craft Beer Survey, when it asked what “independent beer” was.3 It isn’t any of those things. Conflating “independent” with “craft” is just weird and fraught4 (nevermind the oddness of setting “manufactured” as the alternative); size doesn’t have anything to do with ownership since multinationals operate any number of tiny local subsidiaries, and independent breweries like Coopers (let alone, say, Sierra Nevada) are “big” by anyone’s standards;5 implying that overseas independent breweries don’t exist is so bizarrely parochial I don’t know where to start; and it’s way too optimistic to think that these companies are going to be reliably supportive of their fellow small breweries or the other entities they deal with — for all we go on about how convivial and collaborative the sector can be (and it can be) it’s got the potential to be just as ruthless as anything else.6 All of the survey’s answers, except the top one, will have at least as many exceptions as they have exemplars.
Last time I wrote about boycotts, I mentioned that I’ve got two New Zealand companies on my list: one is there for its unrepentant history of peddling gross sexist and homophobic marketing, the other because of the truly appalling behaviour of its owner/founder towards women — both of them are “independent”. I’ve been steered away from a few local indie brands, here in Australia, on similar grounds. And full-on boycotts aside, I just can’t imagine cheering on the success of an “indie” if I found out it was partly achieved by cutting corners like breaching its liquor license, underpaying its staff, or flouting workplace safety. There are indeed ethical considerations to ownership, but there’s plenty left to be vigilant about even if a handy logo has answered that one question for you.
If a trade group like the Independent Brewers Association want that word — and thereby their seal, Indie Beer Day, their other campaigns, and all that — to really “mean” a cluster of positive things beyond some one small (but significant, sure) fact about ownership, then they’re going to have to work for it. They seem to provide a bunch of resources for members looking to improve things like quality and safety, so it’d be great to see them lay out what else they expect of their members, and state clearly where the line is beyond which you won’t be welcome in their ranks, even if you’re “independent”.7 If we knew that a serious-enough finding against a brewery (for underpaying staff, or whatever) would strip a brewery of their right to use the seal, then its presence would genuinely start to stand for something more.
At this stage in the story of modern beer, it’s also impossible to ignore just how weak the convictions of some breweries prove to be. After several high-profile and high-hypocrisy buyouts of once-proud “independent” operators, I’ve lost the ability to be surprised by the next one.8 If a brewery wanted to convince me that it truly valued its independence, there’s a lot more it could do than add a little seal to its packaging: it could structure its shareholding to make a buyout much more difficult or much less appealing, or it could put its intellectual property in trust in a separate entity, which would have the same effect. Granted, steps like that would also undermine the perceived “value” of the company, which might make raising capital difficult, among other possible complications9 — but that’s the point: words are pretty much free, principles are going to cost you.
To celebrate Indie Beer Day, then, I guess I’m inviting both the IBA and its members to do something to make “independence” a more meaningful commitment. Until then, I’ll pretty much ignore it and keep looking for good beer made by good people.
- A promotional initiative by the Independent Brewers Association, a local industry group — not one of those more naturally-occurring beer days like Stout Float Night, or Brown Ale Day, for which I have a lot more time and love.
- I’m still fascinated and infuriated by companies / brands that lie (or prevaricate, or fudge, or intentionally leave things murky) about these things, but that’s because I find bullshitting inherently objectionable, and I know other people would like to use it for their purchasing decisions. Incidentally, I have no idea if that so-called “Indie” beer in the photo is or isn’t. It’s brewed in Vietnam (but I don’t know by who) for an Australian company that started as a grocer and evolved into a wholesaler / distributor of food, booze and tobacco. (The lager itself was enjoyably boring, as expected. Perfectly lovely with the cheeseburger I made for lunch.)
- This year’s survey is currently live. Obviously I just answered that “independent” meant “independent”, and nothing else. Meanwhile, 22% of people disagreed with that, last year? I’m not sure what to make of that. Best case scenario is that it reflects a healthy skepticism and awareness that companies lie about these things… 2019’s full results are here, and note that the IBA formulated the “meanings of independence” question.
- The IBA itself was once the “Craft Beer Industry Association” before it reinvented itself a few years ago, which necessitated some high-profile changes in membership, so they just can’t mean the same thing.
- Coopers is around 5% of the entire Australian market; Sierra Nevada makes half as much beer as the whole of New Zealand combined — which made it such a handy example when explaining to people why we stopped saying “micro” brewery.
- In the UK right now, a group of medium-sized breweries have been lobbying for a change in the way tax is calculated that would benefit themselves by penalising smaller operations, which is a fairly egregious act of kicking away the ladder you used to climb up just to spite anyone who’d follow. (There’s another good summary here, and its author hit the nail absolutely square on the head when he noted last night that “supporting independent business is not the right move… supporting ETHICAL business is the only way.”
- Rule 7.4 of their constitution provides for the expulsion of members that breach their policies or act in a manner “prejudicial to the interests of” the IBA, which would certainly empower this kind of thing, if the leadership felt so inclined. But there’s nothing obvious in IBA materials like a “Code Of Conduct” or set of standards. (It’s possible there’s something visible only to members, but that would sort of undermine the point, wouldn’t it?)
- I’ve always regretted not keeping a file of clippings of various proclamations, denials and declarations, just in case. I think my favourite example — for its sheer baldfaced hypocrisy and the lack of self-awareness from its founder — was Lagunitas selling to Heineken in 2015, so I’m at least half a decade past this ever being “shocking” again.
- Thanks to Paul Johns and my old law school buddy Emmett Geoghegan for sanity-checking some ideas for me, here.