Pints and Politics: Time for Another Round?

Unfiltered by | Mar 2017 | Issue #122
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Politics and beer have a long, complicated, and fascinating history. In the United States, ale helped stoke and sustain talk of resistance, change, and, eventually, rebellion. Today, politicians find themselves hoisting pints with commoners or badly pouring beers from overflowing taps on St. Patrick’s Day.

And where there are pints on the table, debate will fill the air. Lively discussion and even friendly disagreement have long been routine in pub cultures around the world. It helps that alcohol tends to loosen our inhibitions, making us stop holding our tongues when others offer opinions with which we disagree.

Beer enthusiasts love to argue, debate, and disagree. They talk up their favorite breweries, castigate those they don’t love, and argue over hazy IPAs, hop levels, and whether lager is even worth drinking. But despite our penchant for interpersonal exchange, politics is a topic that seems verboten in most craft beer establishments. For consumers, political topics have the potential to degrade the communal vibe that underlies so much of the current beer scene. We all love flavor and are fighting against the big guys, the thinking goes, so why muck up a good thing with challenging discussions?

This avoidance of potentially disagreeable topics hasn’t served the industry well. We pretend the community feeling is uniform, ignoring the homogeneous nature of our niche, which is largely populated by reasonably well-off white men. That reality, borne out by attendance at any beer event or in looking at the websites of almost any craft brewer or the Brewers Association itself, is self-evident and troubling.

As with politics, there is certainly strong financial incentive to maintain the status quo and not to upset the balance that pays the bills. But the insular nature of the craft brewing community is a weakness, not a strength. It’s best to acknowledge and then address the issue. The industry needs a boost of cultural agility, an ability to navigate beyond our own limited subculture. Again, this is not political correctness, it’s about broadening the audience. And if you need a different motive, think about maximizing reach and thereby profit.

Whether you’re a Democrat, Libertarian, Green, Republican, or a political agnostic, we can all agree we live in divided times. These are times when we often surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who reflect our own views. This is certainly an inviting safe space—a warm, comforting cocoon. But it’s also not healthy in the long term. Exposure to new experiences, thoughts, and realities is healthy. Respectful disagreement and engagement are healthy. Ultimately, even dissent is healthy. And there are few better ways to do that than in a pub over shared rounds of beer.

Craft brewers and publicans do great services for this country. Beyond providing products that loosen tongues and encourage robust discussions, they engage with their localities, hold fundraisers for well-deserving charities, and provide community meeting spaces. It can be a difficult prospect for such businesses to take stances and thereby risk adverse consequences. While pub owners welcome lively conversation, acknowledging these larger issues, whether it’s contentious politics or the lack of involvement of women and other underrepresented groups, should be a thoughtful priority.

There are bigger challenges facing this industry than whether hazy IPAs should be their own style category. It’s time we talked about how to do better in the future. Over a few pints, of course.