(by Tom Morgan, Issue 25)
I think beer is important. For good or for ill, beer-related activities consume a fair share of my waking hours: reading, brewing, judging, writing, ruminating, or even just drinking. And while my personal sentiments regarding beer are neither novel nor ground-breaking, beer matters. To put it bluntly, good beer is a civic responsibility. Think of it like voting, only more fun.
Undoubtedly, beer as a symbol for the social fabric of community and nation will strike many as odd. Still, that belief informs my interest in beer; it is, after all, what led me to this column. As an advocate for local craft beer, I think that enthusiasm for craft beer is important, but without the reciprocal knowledge to complement that enthusiasm, you might as well throw your vote away. Similarly, beer cannot be divorced from the social, political, and economic factors that go into its production. Ignoring the ethical dimensions of beer production is not that different than naïve enthusiasm: it ignores communal obligation by ignoring the less pleasant features of the social contract. It may be your right to be a bad citizen—it’s a privilege, actually, but that’s another matter—but as my mother repeatedly reminded me during my childhood, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Thus, while I’d like to focus on providing readers with a greater context for local craft beer, I will not shy away from the thornier elements informing these issues at a local level: when appropriate, I’ll be critical of producers and consumers alike. Maybe I’ll burn some bridges along the way. Hopefully not, but who knows? I will say that craft beer—and here I am speaking of the philosophical idea of craft beer and not the actual nuts-and-bolts business side of the equation—matters more, specifically as it relates to the larger good of the community.
Before getting to the job at hand, I’d like to offer a bit more regarding my personal background—the justificatory beer biography, so to speak. While I would like to pretend that my witty, clever repartee is more than enough to bring you all back for more, some divulgence of practical knowledge is no doubt also required. That, and as my editor will undoubtedly point out, journalistic integrity requires just such an accounting. I began homebrewing fifteen years ago; I moved to Dayton in 2006, and joined DRAFT, the local homebrew club. I’ve been blogging about beer since 2009. Additionally, I’ve been a beer judge through BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) for the last five years, and more recently, I’ve been involved with a couple of the new breweries that have opened: I volunteer at Yellow Springs Brewery when I can find the time, I’m on the Fifth Street Brewpub Co-op’s Beer Team, which tastes and troubleshoots pilot beer recipes with the head brewer (I’m also a co-op member), and I’m good friends with the new assistant brewer at Warped Wing. I initially met most of these people through DRAFT; as the Dayton beer community has expanded, so has my network of friends. Still, I am not paid by any of these entities—the University of Dayton pays my bills—so when I speak here, it is as a consumer advocate for local craft beer, not for any of these (or any other) specific institutions. From my perspective, a smarter consumer means better beer: both producers and consumers have their part to play in developing Dayton’s beer scene.
After all, it is an exciting time for beer in Dayton. When I first moved to Dayton, there wasn’t a brewery to be found; now, the greater Dayton metropolitan area is home to several breweries with more on the way. However, while Dayton is now a beer town, it is not yet a good beer town. And it has a ways to go—quite a ways, in fact—to be considered a great beer town. I know that many people reading this will undoubtedly disagree. Vehemently, in fact. They’ll cite line and verse of all the great things Dayton breweries are doing, many of which I would undoubtedly agree with. At the same time, though, consumers have a responsibility to hold local breweries to a greater standard of quality—sure, local is great, but buying beer just because it is made locally regardless of quality is not: that’s called marketing. This tension between the enthusiasm for craft beer and the honest assessment of it as a commercial product is where the vast majority of productive conversation regarding local craft beer breaks down. When beer drinkers resort to parroting back marketing as self-evident truth, they choose to be cheerleaders for the economic interests of breweries and not consumers playing their part by contributing to the development of local craft beer. Yes, breweries are businesses—they need to turn a profit to continue operating—but they should not turn that profit at the expense of the consumer. When I am served a local beer that should have never been released to the public, I am left with one of two conclusions: the brewery either doesn’t know enough about beer production to discern that there is a problem or they just don’t care about their customers. Neither prospect is flattering to the brewery, and yet this problem continues to happen—far more than I would care to admit, in fact. Given the enthusiasm surrounding craft beer in Dayton, we need a larger body of consumers willing to argue for quality, not just those willing to swallow the Kool Aid.
To argue for quality requires treating beer as more than a fashion accessory—it means educating yourself as a consumer in order to take responsibility for helping to make things better. While I will talk more about this in our next issue, part of the problem facing the Dayton beer community—whether intentionally and unintentionally—stems from a disregard or dismissal of beer style.