1991-1994 was a great time to be an alternative music fan. August 1991 was the release of Ten by Pearl Jam. A month later Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the country. That was the moment we alternative music thought we had won.
We, the weird, geeky kids everyone else made fun of were on top of the world. We weren’t the cool kids. What we had done was bring the cool kids into our world. The musicians everyone was listening to were just like us. They had been the ones dressing weird in high school. They were the ones acting weird. They were the ones reading weird books. They were the ones drawing weird pictures. Now, they straddled the world like colossuses. It felt like we could do anything.
Then it ended. You can attribute it to Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Or, maybe it was Pearl Jam warring with TicketMaster. Somehow it all ended up with Creed being a hit band.
I have much the same feeling right now as a craft beer fan as I did as an alternative music fan in 1992. Craft beer has the same critical buzz. Craft is in every magazine and on every bookshelf. Entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money using the words craft beer. It is a heady time. It is also a dangerous time.
Back to Creed. I’m sure the guys in the band are nice enough. OK, maybe they have their issues, but who doesn’t. Creed as an entity doesn’t matter. In this case, they represent the idea that grunge music could be broken down into a scientific formula for success.
One-part muddy guitar + one-part gravelly voiced baritone lead singer + one-part flannel = successful band.
There is a soul in art and music that you can’t capture by the use of certain chords and instrumentation. What money men and accountants forget is that the thing that makes art great, its soul, can’t be codified. Great music is more than just chords and instrumentation. Much of the music that came after Nirvana sounded fine. It provides a good soundtrack to your time spent in a bar or a coffee shop, but it doesn’t make you feel. It is missing that ineffable thing that soul actually is.
You can taste soul in beer as much as you can hear it in music. Budweiser is a solidly made beer. Each can taste like the can you had 5 years ago. Making beer taste the same or close to the same from batch to batch is the holy grail. That is a hard thing to do. Ask any brewer. However, that doesn’t mean Bud has any soul.
The company that makes Budweiser isn’t a brewery. It is a beer company that manufactures and sells beer much the same way Goodyear manufactures and sells tires. For them, beer is a commodity. Its purpose is to appeal to the broadest possible audience at the highest possible price to produce the greatest profits. That formula leaves room for no soul.
Think of it another way. You can eat macaroni cheese that comes in a box. It tastes fine in a pinch. The macaroni and cheese your mother makes from scratch taste wholly different. The Budweiser you drink could be brewed in Virginia or it could be brewed in China. You won’t know the difference. The beer you get from the brewery 10 minutes from your house could only be made in that particular place by those particular people.
That will be craft beer’s saving grace just as it has been the saving grace of good music. There are independent music labels popping up every day. Bands tour constantly. They connect with people at a grass roots level every day all over the world. Going forward, the most successful breweries will be the ones who continue to innovate and connect with the public at a grassroots level.
Some of the most financially successful musical acts today get little to no airplay on traditional popular radio. However, they play to sold out concerts night after night and get plenty of airtime on independent radio stations and online streaming services. They find a way to connect with their audience on a grass-roots level almost person to person.
Big music companies stripped music of its vitality by dumbing it down to the least common denominator. They stripped it of what makes it vital and kind of scary. Big beer companies are doing the same thing to craft beer through purchasing existing craft breweries and creating faux craft brands under their own umbrella.
Hey – he’s the one
Who likes our pretty songs
He likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his guns
But he knows not what it means
Don’t know what it means
— “In Bloom” Nirvana
Most people don’t want to think too much when it comes to their beer. They just want something to drink. They don’t know what all these words mean and they don’t care. They just want to get a little buzz and they will get it from something that tastes good enough unless they are convinced that there is something better.
People have so many choices to make in their lives that they don’t want to think about choosing the music they listen to or the beer they should drink. They want someone to curate those things and tell them what is good and what is important.
If the big beer companies are allowed to curate, they will do it in a way that maximizes profits. They will drown the world in the least offensive, least creative, most soulless, cheapest beer possible. Beer that is merely close enough to good.
It is incumbent on us, the people who love craft beer, for all that it is and all that it can be, to stand up and make sure the big beer companies aren’t allowed to convince people that just close enough is good enough.