Thursday, June 28, 2012

Craft Beer and the Next Economy

Picture from Brewfest Link
A couple of Saturdays ago I went to the Hyperlocal Brewfest at the Somerville armory. It was a dozen or so area craft, micro, and other (the other being Sam Adams & Narraganset, which was nice because I'd been intrigued by the Sam Adams Porch Rocker, but wanted to try some before committing to a six-pack. Verdict: It'd be perfect if I'd just mowed a lawn, but I think I'll fill my fridge with other beers) brewers giving tall pours and unlimited samples of their wares. I tried beers from Cambridge Brewing Company, Watch City, Backlash, Idle Hands, Jack's Abby, Somerville Brewing Company, and Night Shift. The CBC, Jack's Abby (which I didn't realize was local) and Somerville Brewing Company, had the best individual beers, and the pims beer (which really tasted like a pims cup, meaning it was cucumber beer) from Cape Anne was really interesting, but the best beverage I had was a combination of Night Shift's Taza Chocolate Stout AND! Viva Habanero, a rye malt with habanero peppers. (For the love of peace and justice and the children and puppies, put that in a bottle!)

Of course, this is all part of the growing localism trend, the absurd belief that life is better when you give enough of a shit about the town or city you live in to shop in a way that supports said economy of said town. (Aside, I wonder how strong the locavore movement is in this small-town value-driven, um, towns, that people keep telling me are the real America. What? Wal-mart put all those stores out of business? OK then.) But with the national unemployment rate hovering around the 8s and looking like its going to stay there for awhile, and the growing concerns around global warming and climate change, I wonder if, more than just producing a delicious, delicious beverage, local-focused craft beer might be leading the way to the next American economy.

In general, locally owned businesses hire more people per dollar of sales than national and international businesses, at least in terms of retail. Part of this employment difference, of course, has to do with duplication of services. A thousand different locally owned businesses will all have their own marketing coordinator, personnel manager, receiver etc, while a large national chain will only have one or a small group meeting those responsibilities. (Part of this difference might also be that locally owned independent businesses don't usually have some rich asshole at the top demanding shmillions of dollars a year in earnings.) And, of course, the other benefits of shopping locally, such as tax revenue, property values, and general economic activity, are well documented, but I think the craft-micro-local beer industry might have even more to teach us.

What about an economy of small-scale manufacturing and production? When we think about restoring manufacturing in America, we tend to think about car factories, and other massive endeavors, the kind of industry that defined the, um, industrial revolution, but maybe the answer to our manufacturing deficit is to go small. Thousands of small operations around the country, hiring people with a productive level of redundancy and, perhaps, making high quality goods in an environmentally rational way at reasonable prices to boot.

Beer, of course, is the perfect product for sustainable small-scale production. You can start your business in your kitchen. If things go well you can be a tenant brewer as Pretty Things did, renting space in existing breweries to make your beer. And even if you end up owning your own brewery, you don't need a huge space for it. And there seems to be a range of economic sustainabilities in making beer; you've got your Sam Adams and Harpoon, and you've got your Peak, Notch, Cape Ann, Ipswitch, and you've got your Night Watch, Pretty Things, and Somerville Brewing Company.

In metro-Somerbridge, we're seeing a little bit of this, especially in terms of various food products, but is there a way to develop, small-scale clothing, appliance, home goods, electronics, and other manufacturing? Cities, towns, and state subsidize businesses all the time, usually through tax breaks and low interest loans, but nearly all of the time these subsidies go to big national chains. Wal-Mart walks into the local city council meeting promises adding 500 jobs by building a warehouse in the town and then casually hints they suppose they could build that warehouse in the next town over unless they don't have to pay property tax on the warehouse for ten years. (Then, because this is Wal-Mart, they deliver half the jobs they promised generally at a non-liveable wage, and if a few local businesses go out because of this, the city's tax base usually erodes even further, but I doubt I needed to tell you Wal-Mart is bad.) Millions or perhaps billions of dollars in local funds have been poured into massive and already successful and profitable businesses. It's kind of like the steroid era in baseball, the strongest are just getting stronger. (A couple places for all the data: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance and The 10% Shift)

But what if towns, cities, and counties, started subsidizing small-scale manufacturing and production? You would probably create more jobs for less money and, in terms of the city's investment, jobs that aren't going to up and relocate to Bangladesh. It would be investments in business owners who are themselves specifically invested in the well-being of the city. And this wouldn't have to mean the end of large-scale production.

Some products, cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. just can't be produced at the local level and that's fine. There can be room in our economy for the large-scale and the small-scale, the local and the international, the big and the small. The only reason we don't see more of a mixed economy is because big businesses tend to spend a lot of money on getting bigger, usually in the form of lobbying the shit out of Congress and local governments for tax breaks, subsidies, and lax regulation that gives them economic advantages. Or, they just take a 6.025% price advantage by not collecting and remitting sales tax. (AMAZON!)

But, as usual, it starts with beer. By making home brewing legal Jimmy Carter maybe have begun the process of the next American economy, a small-scale, sustainable, productive economy that creates jobs and lowers our carbon footprints. And delicious beer. Delicious delicious beer.

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