Some scholars say that beer and wine – and fermentation in general – helped develop civilization and shaped culture and landscapes for millennia.
Today, craft breweries, which are by definition small and independent and thus focusing their production on innovative, small-scale methods rather than industrialized, mass-produced methods still play that role.
They are increasingly prominent players in America’s social and environmental landscape, helping to produce what some people call fermented landscapes. They serve as community partners, and sometimes community leaders, to bring about change.
And you thought you were just going to have a beer.
In recent research I did with colleagues DeLorean Wiley, Walter Furness And Katherine Sturdivantwe found that craft breweries are involved in social and political change in three key areas: the environment, community and individual well-being, and the economy, the latter ranging from issues related to employee benefits to profit sharing.
Consumers can see this advocacy in action in several ways.
For example: Have you ever been to your favorite local brewery while they were hosting a local animal shelter adoption day? Or maybe grabbed a pint amidst a pop-up art exhibition? Maybe you bought a funny – witty – or endearing beer named after a local cause?
These are all ways craft brewers engage with their communities and how beer drinkers participate in change rooted in their backyards.
While craft breweries still make up a relatively small portion of the overall brewing industry – just over 13% in production volume and just under 27% in retail sales – their reach is wide and deep.
In 2018, 85% of those over 21 in the United States owned a craft brewery within a radius of 10 kilometers from their place of residence. Since 2018, the number of craft breweries has increased by more than 28%, from just over 7,000 to just over 9,000 craft breweries in the country, suggesting that breweries are only continuing to saturate towns and cities.
Linking beer to the environment and community
Craft breweries advocate for a wide variety of issues. We found that the most common forms of advocacy involved positively representing nature, both in image and text, and promoting local community issues, such as local charities.
Beer labels provide information about the beer, but also about the priorities and interests of the brewer. For example, images of mountains or trees or outdoor activities can evoke environmental values in consumers. Or a beer may be named after a particular local cause as a way of drawing attention to a troubling issue.
These themes – positive representations of nature and support for local community issues or charities – accounted for nearly half, or 44%, of the total advocacy cases we saw.
Other advocacy priorities we saw included bidding for conservation, supporting sustainability initiatives, promoting public spaces, defending LGBTQIA+ rights and inclusion, fighting hunger or homelessness, and celebrating first responders and other frontline workers.
Nearly half of the breweries focused their advocacy activities on holding events, donating money or sourcing the ingredients used to produce the beer locally or sustainably. So a brewery might host a water conservation workshop, donate a portion of its profits to a selected cause, or commit to using only grain that has been grown and processed in a capable way.
But advocacy also takes many other forms for breweries, in keeping with the spirit of innovation and independence of craft brewers.
That advocacy includes running an affiliate non-profit organization; composting, recycling or generating renewable energy; using GMO-free or ethically sourced ingredients; or with at least one female owner.
Nearly half – 43% – of the sampled breweries engaged in some form of social advocacy, further cementing the role of craft breweries as key players in their communities. This is consistent with their long-standing reputation as community-oriented entities, a hallmark recognized by the Brewers Association And past.
Nearly a third of the breweries sampled in our survey engaged in environmental protection through images of nature in website graphics, label images or beer names. Whether this level of involvement substantively reflects the values - reflected in the recreational habits, political ideologies, beliefs about quality or purchasing – of the clientele, the owners of the establishments, both or neither, is more difficult to discern. At the very least, it means that environmental imagery is a popular means of marketing craft beer as a local product.
Room for improvement
Very few breweries – only 1% of the sample – donated direct profits, despite “cause beer” like a highly visible example of brewery advocacy. The lack of economic-focused advocacy may reflect the already tight margins under which most of these companies operate.
Despite the gains in diversity and inclusion following the release of Brewers Association best practicesincluding hiring more women and members of marginalized groups and promoting more inclusive spaces and policies, the pace of change is slow.
For example, women and other marginalized groups – including LGBTQIA+ communities – remain under-represented in the world of craft brewing, including among brewery staff. But there are a few efforts are being made to change that.
So as long as there is opportunity for more profound change in the industry, the evidence suggests breweries are stepping up to the plate to try and run it.