In response to the disassembling of US craft beer that's been going on for a year or so - the surprise sales of big players as well as the retirements of key figures - suddenly we are seeing this term "indie" beer being tossed around like it has some meaning. It would be nice if it does end up having a a degree of decently intelligible substance but it faces some opposition in the race to promote it as brand. Here's what I think might be going on:
- Mr. B has been making a a very good case that the word "craft" has achieved a very good thing - public recognition. There is a related thought that arises from this fact. Replacing it or, worse, duplicating it with indie beer will cause confusing and will undermine this achievement. I like this argument much more than I like the term "craft" itself. And if this is so, "indie" ultimately hurts more than it helps.
- Jeff has been exploring or maybe just testing out "indie beer" but has faced another reality: the future for much of good beer may be controlled by large international drinks conglomerates. The deeper trouble with that analysis, however, rests in the admission he makes: "There will of course still be thousands of small breweries scattered across the country..." See, three sources of good beer are being described - (i) small and local, (ii) medium regional or national and (iii) large multinational. "Indie" beer simply cannot describe the third category and can't really be applied to the second with a straight face. Maybe "indie" is just too accurate to replace the useful general vagueness of craft.
- The third reality is that this talk of "indie" beer might be just a trial balloon being floated by a trade association staffer communications committee. We have to be honest to understand why they'd do that. Big craft, the middle regional or national brewers, got greedy and started to build branch plants and trucking fleets. Much of craft abandoned small. And, in return, a number of major figures have abandoned craft. They don't need it any more. This disloyalty to the values put forward when "micro" was deemed not good enough in the first years of the 2000s has been traumatic. Turns out "craft" has run its course as the catch all, the kitchen sink. Which leaves boosters in pickle. Maybe grasping at straws. It's normal. So "indie" gets trotted out. Let's see if that one works. The other committee members nod. Ruh-roh. No such luck. Frankly, "indie" has that bad feeling you get seeing a friend dating on the rebound after getting dumped by that really great long term girlfriend. He's needy. Panicky. Never a good thing.
Paradigm lost. It sucks in a way that we are in the post-"craft" world given how so much effort and resources have been put into the word by brewers. Trouble is... now that we are in the marketplace of sufficiency very few individual breweries are all that vital. They can each come and go but the whole remains largely unaffected. They are replaceable. Drinkers ask for craft IPA or the latest craft sour. Other than the fusty ticker - or its more recent and better groomed manifestation, the hipster - the success that Mr. B notes means that most craft drinkers do not care that much about the brewery. It's become a fungible. A concept alienated from both its making and its maker. Except, perhaps, if the brewery is just down the road and gives a level personal touch that social media and stacks of cases at grocery store aisle ends can never replicate. Local has meaning.
Can "indie" compete in this new marketplace of ideas? I don't know. I'd like it to as it sounds so good... but if it means corporations with absentee shareholders, trucking fleets and owners who like to post pictures on Facebook on unending holidays in the sun, well, no one is going to accept it. But maybe, instead, it settles into its natural angle of repose and comes to describe just the breweries which are actually local, small and independent. Maybe we now live in at least a four sector reality: indie, big craft, macro and import. Maybe no one word can capture the part of all beer that which makes the good stuff because all sectors can. Maybe that's OK.