Welcome to this edition of First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification. As always, when the excerpt is lengthy, and this one is, I break it into manageable bits and post those bits over the course of several days.
This edition of FDF concerns the early years of the American Homebrewers Association and what is now the Brewers Association, the craft brewing trade group. Much of my research into this topic fell into “insider baseball” information: interesting to those who were involved, and to people with a serious interest in brewing history, but dull as rocks to a more general audience. As a result, almost none of what follows ended up in the book, which was intended for a general audience.
On the other hand, the groups’ early histories provide fascinating insight into the creation of a organization from the ground up, particularly the conflicts that ensued between and among the participants. As a result, I think it’s worth posting this (long) series in full.
For more about the founding of the AHA, see my earlier string of First Draft Follies entries on that topic. (The link takes you to part six of the six-part series; it contains links to parts one through five.)
A Seattle journalist, Vince Cottone, fanned the flames by treating as fact the wholly unsubstantiated rumor that Jim Koch had won the event because he bribed festival-goers with free tickets. It was not true, but Cottone treated it as fact and used the occasion as an excuse to bash the GABF, the AOB, and anyone involved. The preference poll, he complained, “more resembled a cross between a wet T-shirt contest and a corrupt banana republic election than a rational judging of America’s beers.”
The GABF, he concluded, “has lost credibility, at least in the eyes of honest brewers . . . .” (*1) “Besides the winners, who profits from the festival?” Cottone asked. “There seems to be little benefit for most of the bona fide microbrewers whose beers are exhibited.” The only “real bounty,” he complained was “reaped by the Association of Brewers/AHA, for whom it is a money-maker besides being their biggest publicity generator.” (*2)
That was not true either — years would pass before the GABF turned a profit — but it was hard to convince outsiders of that. But Cottone missed a larger point: The Consumer Preference Poll was precisely that, a consumer poll. By no stretch of anyone’s imagination could it be regarded as a “rational judging” of new beers.
Professional blind tasting finally arrived at the GABF in 1987, but the damage had been done. Again, poor communication. There was a certain inevitability about the clash between the brewers and the staff at the AOB. No one doubted Papazian’s will, energy, and desire. But he had fallen almost by accident into his role as voice of the brewers, and there were times when he operated as if he were still teaching a homebrew class at the Boulder Free Community School and the microbrewers were his students.
They were not. Grossman, and Maytag, and others had invested everything — both financially and emotionally — in a risky venture. Like [nineteenth-century German-American brewers] Jacob Best and Valentine Blatz before them, the new generation of brewers could not afford to relax their vigilance; could not afford to sit back and let matters flow untended. Brewing was a tough world whose denizens arrived at profit only by hacking their way through a thicket of city, state, and federal laws; who struggled with suppliers more sued to filling orders for ten million bottles rather than ten gross.
Still, the AOB provided a home for brewers who otherwise had no place to go. Like many others, Larry Bell, who founded his Kalamazoo Brewing Company in 1985, attended a meeting [of the Brewers Association of America, the old-line brewing trade group for small and regional brewers] but found it “intimidating.”
Worse yet, no one there talked about things that mattered to him. The BAA held its meetings at a “fancy hotel” and the agenda focused on “political stuff, the tax differential, relations with BATF, relations with the wholesalers’ association.” (*3) Bell and others who were just getting off the ground didn’t “have time to deal with” those things. They needed and wanted information about “real life issues,” things like the names of suppliers willing to sell small quantities and how to “troubleshoot [their] cobbled engineering.” (*4)
*1: Vince Cottone, “Beer & Loathing In Denver: The Great American Beer Festival 1986,” American Brewer (Summer 1987): 15.
*2: Ibid., 16.
*3: Larry Bell, interview with Maureen Ogle, May 2005.