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You. Are. Not. Safe.

2014-01-19 18.49.03

That’s bad handwriting even by my standards. (the bit at the top is “what??”)

I scribbled the above in the margins of my copy of The Audacity of Hops. It’s one of many such annotations, though most are not nearly as urgent or threatening. 

This post discusses The Audacity of Hops by Tom Acitelli, which I’m reading in preparation for our first “book club” on the second floor of Mr Goodbar on March 5th. To order the book with a 15% discount from Talking Leaves, email Dan by 1/28.

But first, two asides

I’ve recounted this anecdote before: I was a college freshman watching A Beautiful Mind. I saw the story of John Nash, an absolutely brilliant man. I was astounded at his insights, at the patterns he saw when no one else did. Then it was revealed he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and that many of his patterns were figments of his own mind. I had been thinking, literally, that I wanted to be like this man, and then was a bit horrified by the prospect of what I had been wishing for (this is in no way meant to minimize or belittle mental illness).

Years later, I read all of Plague Zone by David Wellington on a car trip home from Philadelphia. It was the story of a librarian fighting zombies, and as someone with a Master of Library Science degree this sounded right up my alley. The book started: it was a male librarian — like me! — going to an American Library Association annual conference — like I would in a month! — in Chicago — wow, like me! — who was one of the only men at the conference. Wow, I thought, my trip is going to be just like this! Then he cheated on his wife and I could not backpedal from that thought quickly enough.

Let us not be condemned

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

This was different. I knew the end of the story before I started, but went along for the ride anyway. Sort of like Titanic, but without the sex scene my mother in law wanted to fast forward through as though I hadn’t just seen Kate Winslet’s nipple a few minutes before. It wasn’t a surprise when I reached the point in Tom Acitelli’s book where New Albion closed its doors: instead, the revelations came about its life.

New Albion started with a 1.5 bbl brewhouse. That’s what Community Beer Works started with, and in fact still uses. They produced 400 barrels of beer in their first full year: in 2013 we produced 405. They worked long hours for little pay, and by their second full year of operation they were looking to expand. This is the story of Community Beer Works. I’m reading a history book from the future (here you will note the author’s hubris at assuming he is historically noteworthy).

Gratuitous self portrait (colloquially called "selfie") of the author, 1/19/2014. Photo courtesy Dan Conley

Gratuitous self portrait (colloquially called “selfie”) of the author, 1/19/2014. Photo courtesy Dan Conley

Then, suddenly and perhaps in the context of the book without warning, they closed.

I knew this was the end of their story, so unlike John Nash and Tim Kempfer I didn’t try to see too much of myself in Jack McAuliffe. Even so, there were enough similarities as to be unnerving. I was shaken, but not surprised.

What did surprise me was the story of breweries I hadn’t heard of: DeBakker, Cartwright, the Real Ale Company. They weren’t Sierra Nevada or Bell’s or the Independent Ale Brewing Company (which made Redhook): those are names which I recognize today. But I assumed there would be a tailing off of their sales. Multiple brushes with disaster before the end.

In the case of the Real Ale Company, however, it was first mentioned on page 101. On the next page Hall & Oates stopped in to buy 20 cases of beer. Acitelli uses the next paragraph to detail the characteristics of the new craft beer movement, before ending it on page 103 with an almost offhand list of four breweries — including Real Ale — that closed.

What? How in the hell do you go from founding to apparent critical acclaim to closing in less than two pages?

They were not safe. We, Community Beer Works, are not safe. We’ve been in operation for almost two years now, and while we’ve remained small — if I may forego my self deprecating nature for a moment — I think we’re constantly increasing in awareness and popularity. I think we make damn good beer and that others agree.

But that doesn’t guarantee us success. Life is not a meritocracy.

The conditions have changed since then, of course. For one thing, as Ethan pointed out when we talked about New Albion, we aren’t trying to sell beer to a market that doesn’t exist. People understand and appreciate craft beer now, because of pioneers like McAuliffe whether or not they know it. Because there is a market banks and other lenders aren’t immediately dismissive of funding requests: New Albion and DeBakker in particular seemed to be done in by this.

Craft beer in the early 1980s was a bubble, but no one seemed to know it at the time. There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not we’re currently in yet another bubble, if the market can sustain the kind of growth we’re currently seeing. I sure as hell hope so, obviously, both for our sake and for our friends who are and will be in operation.

We’re never going to get comfortable, though. We can’t. The minute we think we’ve made it, that we can stop fighting, you’ll turn the page of the next book on American breweries and discover we’re gone. That’s not going to happen.

Well. As I wrote after the demise of New Albion:

2014-01-19 16.42.12

…have a nice day.