I stand before you today, ladies and gentlemen, with fingers affixed to my keyboard to share with you a little known fact: Yes, there once was a time when beer wasn’t this complicated. You knew what you liked because you drank it every single time you had a beer and, every now and then, the company that made your favorite beer would produce a clever commercial that made you chuckle. You didn’t question anything, you didn’t write a review damning it or praising it or sit on the fence ‘meh-ing’ it. Hell, I’m willing to bet you don’t even remember why you liked your beer of choice other than it was your beer of choice and that made it special.
Thankfully, today’s beer frontier is much more vivid, colorful, diverse, and yes, much more complicated. Beer varieties have subsets. And their subsets have subsets. Brewers are pushing the envelope daily to deliver unique, high-quality, well-handled beer to you, the consumer, and they do it with passion every step of the way. Micro/Craft/Independent beer has spawned a bold landscape that has transcended the liquid and forged its own culture and said culture is comprised of enthusiasts, zealots, collectors, nerds, geeks, fans, rebels, innovators, geniuses, and mad scientists. And it’s all wonderfully, gloriously, freakin’ beautiful.
The independent craft beer culture as a whole hasn’t just introduced a handcrafted, artisanal liquid to the world. Nor has it just helped a generation of beer drinkers evolve their palates to happily enjoy varieties of beer that once existed only in the furthest recesses of our minds. It has created jobs. It has supported families. It has been at the forefront of rebuilding communities all but left for dead and has raised millions of dollars for those less fortunate. It has been living, breathing proof that a small, somewhat irrational thought or idea can become something magnificent.
And in the process of all that good, it’s pissed off ‘the man’ because it’s staked its claim to a piece of the American beermarket pie.
The nerve! How dare you treat the land of opportunity like the land of opportunity, craft beer? How DARE you?!
Over the past several years, ‘corporate beer’ has gone on a shopping spree, applying multiple zeroes to checks in hopes of altering the beliefs and mindsets independent brewery founders developed when they took their crazy ideas and made them reality. At the same time, they’ve used political connections to start lobbying in Wisconsin with an end-goal of prohibiting small breweries from selling their beer IN THEIR OWN TAPROOMS while publicly decreeing that ‘wine and spirits are the real enemies of craft beer.’ They’ve cut off supplies to breweries while asking for solidarity and a cease to in-fighting. They’ve made it harder for breweries to get on tap at bars and on shelves at supermarkets while telling those same breweries they’re worrying over nothing and “we’re all making beer, so…”
The Brewers Association recently released a seal (pictured left) that helps differentiate independent craft beer from corporate beer. This seal, as expected, has been met with responses both positive and negative because humankind is nothing if not opinionated. To me, it symbolizes something much deeper than a mark of independence. It’s representative of a belief that thousands of adventurous individuals had the guts to act upon.
Let’s explore that belief.
The Story of Levity Brewing
A little over three years ago, three friends got together on a Saturday afternoon to brew beer in a garage. Two of them had experience while the third was anxious to get his hands dirty and see what all the hype was about. The day was rich with laughter, knowledge, innovation, creativity, and camaraderie. Day became night as these three friends were joined by a fourth compadre who brought beers and cigars for the entire crew to share.
That Saturday may seem like just another fun way to enjoy the weekend. But in that garage that day, the beginning of an irrational belief began to take shape.
Consider this: Three mature, educated, gainfully employed, grown ass men began making beer together in a garage…and got so good at what they did, they began discussing the possibility of taking a collective blind leap of faith and opening their own brewery. And not just their own brewery, but the very first brewery in the quaint county of Indiana, Pennsylvania since the 1930s.
A rational person might think they were outside their minds. But this story is not unlike that of thousands of others across this great nation and, dollars to doppelbocks, the beer you have in your hand right now may not exist had someone not irrationally chased what some would consider a crazy pipe dream.
This is the story of Levity Brewing and founders Erich Walls, Jared Herman, and Luke McKelvey had a vision for what they could bring to the beer world. And in the short 19 months since they poured their first pint, what they’ve produced is more than just delicious liquid.
I stood with a crowd of local politicians, businessmen and businesswomen, and representatives of a group connected to the Brewers of Pennsylvania to learn more about a brewery and group of hardworking guys I was fortunate enough to meet long before their finished brewery and diverse beer portfolio was unveiled. Levity Brewing welcomed this group to their Indiana taproom for a grand tour and to learn more about their contributions to Indiana County, as well as Pennsylvania’s independent beer scene. These three are proud to be independent and are actively looking for ways to strike balance in regards to beer distribution while, at the same time, doing more than their fair share to generate revenue for their county, city, and state.
Since opening their doors, here is what Levity Brewing has made a reality:
- Officially opened 19 months ago after 3.5 years of focused work and a 6.5 month wait for a license
- Invested over $600,000 in equipment and infrastructure
- Created SIX full-time and 15 part-time jobs
- Investment in expansion: $30,000 spent on kegs purchased within Pennsylvania to accommodate growth. Discussions are in the works to expand to canning – a $100-300k investment + 3-4 more jobs likely created
- Approximately 11,000 customers have come through their doors
- Approximately 30-40,000 customers have experienced Levity beer outside their taproom
- Approximately 60,000 pints, flights, and growlers sold in-house
- Approximately 16,000 meals have been served
- Over 800 kegs sold to over 100 different bars and restaurants since distribution began
- $302,000 in salaries and wages paid
- $44,000 in taxes paid
To someone sitting in an ivory tower at corporate beer headquarters, this may not seem like much. But to someone who risked everything – a career, time with family, and financial security just to name a few – this is validation. This is tangible proof that an irrational idea may not have been so irrational after all. This is a true testament to what dedication and staying true to one’s beliefs can create.
This is what corporate beer wants to crush.
As I mentioned, Levity’s story is comparable to thousands of others across the independent beer scene. If you’ve ever wondered why the craft beer world is so willing to work with one another, it’s because of stories like this. It’s the pursuit of unbridled dreams and visions in the hopes of creating something extraordinary that so many men and women in the industry share…that common bond is unbreakable. And if you think the tactics of corporate beer are ‘no big deal,’ it’s stories, dreams, and leaps of faith like the aforementioned that are at stake in the name of maximizing shareholder value.
More Bud Light across Indiana County isn’t going to help anybody. More Levity beer across Indiana County absolutely will.
A Response to The Response to The Response
While craft beer’s uprising has created disruption in corporate beer’s happy dance as the ‘king’ of beer, none of it had really hit the mainstream public until AB InBev utilized the Super Bowl’s advertising stage to promote Budweiser while demeaning craft beer drinkers. Many considered that ad to be the first shot fired in beer’s current civil war, the number of breweries who had already sold portions or majority stakes of their companies not withstanding. ABI released several ads comparable to that first one, with another running during the following year’s Super Bowl once again. If nothing else, these 30-second to 1-minute spots raised public awareness and solidified that craft beer posed a major threat to the ‘good ol’ boys’ beer club. Typically, if you’re not threatened by a competitor, you don’t mention them, right? Corporate beer mentioned craft beer and then some…with the majority of the world’s eyes glued to their TV sets.
So on and on it goes. Corporate beer buys out small, independent breweries at will while saying they’re all about making the craft beer industry better. Everyone on the side of craft beer doesn’t believe them. Lather, rinse, repeat.
To respond to the initial shot and corporate beer’s continued intrusion, The Brewers Association released its seal to help consumers make educated decisions. In response, almost immediately, The High End released the following:
Now, if you’re like me, this video left you wondering if the operative word in The High End is ‘high.’ It can’t be an easy spot to pontificate from these days, knowing the vitriol the craft beer public has for these brands since they got in bed with the bad guys…but it sure as hell didn’t stop them from trying, did it? I’ll agree with one point from Walt Dickinson of Wicked Weed: “At the end of the day, we’re all making beer.” Yes. True. But this has gone far beyond what’s in the glass.
There are millions of people out there who won’t shop at Walmart because they know their M.O. – burst upon the scene, undercut everybody, and run the little guys out of town. I watched this unfold before I left my hometown of Bradford, PA many years ago. It gives the consumer less options and, by default, they have to come to your store because they can’t get what they need elsewhere. Or, the competition can’t afford to price the same item as low as Walmart and eventually sees that catch up with them.
Corporate beer operates similarly. When Wicked Weed’s distribution hits new towns (and you know it will because their ABI welcome letter most likely told them how fast they’ll grow now – even though they seemingly had a ridiculously huge cult following as it was, but I digress), what beer will come off tap to make room for Lunatic Blonde? Bud Light? HA! Surely you jest. A small, self-distributed independent brand who’s doing everything in their power and budget to introduce their product to the masses will lose out in this case.
It’s the same mentality – burst upon the scene, undercut everybody, make it next to impossible for the little guys to compete.
That is what’s happening outside the glass. That’s why the efforts of a Levity Brewing are important to a community. This is why an initiative like the Independent Craft seal means so much to the movement. And it’s statements like in this video that make those on the craft side of the battlefield question any of corporate beer’s true motives.
The Deeper Meaning
Do wine and spirits pose a threat? To some degree, sure. But beer drinkers are beer drinkers. Very seldom do serious beer drinkers who seek out the rarest releases or attend numerous craft beer festivals or chase badges on Untappd give it all up in the name of pinot grigio. I believe those fully indoctrinated to independent beer want to support more than just the liquid in their glasses. They want to support the businesses who gives a damn about them. The ones who converse with them on social media and take the time to spread education about their product and tell their story with the volume turned up high. And they want to support the culture. This crazy, beautiful, insane, plentiful, opinionated culture. A culture that no amount of money from corporate beer’s deep pockets could possibly create or recreate.
The BA’s Independent Craft seal is a step in the right direction in regards to differentiation. But it’s deeper than that. It’s another steps towards the preservation of irrational thoughts that lead to these breweries opening their doors in the first place. It’s an homage to crazy, off-the-wall ideas that lead to some of best damn beers to ever touch our lips. It’s a bold step towards increasing the knowledge and education of a wild and rabid beer culture that will continue to grow because of it or fade away due to the lack of it. It’s a symbolic lifting of the pint to every man, woman, and family that’s put it all on the line in the name of a vision and a belief that’s brought tangible good to our world. It’s a figurative and literal middle finger to the establishment that says we will keep doing what we do regardless of your efforts.
The beer world is changing. The beer world is evolving. The beer world won’t be the same tomorrow as it is today. And that should make you pretty damn happy. More businesses like Levity Brewing will join the fray and more businesses like Wicked Weed will join the corporate ranks. That’s inevitable. But be thankful blogs, websites, and organizations like the Brewers Association are making it easier for you to know what you’re drinking and who’s producing it. I repeat – making it easier for you to know what you’re drinking and who’s producing it – not telling you what you should be drinking.
That choice is yours.