Keeping the Passion Alive

The SessionSeptember Session host Natasha Godard has asked beer bloggers and writers to address the hard questions, the topics we’re not talking about so much. Keeping the early passion of the craft beer pioneers was my partially written response before I went off to YCH’s Hop and Brew School in Yakima, Washington on Wednesday. Thursday during breakfast, I asked two long-time employees from Sierra Nevada about changes they’d seen over the years. “Well, we used to just walk into Ken’s office,” one noted. “Now days, we have to make an appointment.”

I then asked what they thought the company would be like the day Grossman’s no longer there. Both said Grossman has done a really good job of putting strong people into positions that should ensure the company’s continued success. But what about maintaining the early passion?” I asked. That will be a lot harder.

New Albion's sign, today at Russian River in Santa Rosa, CA

New Albion’s sign, today at Russian River in Santa Rosa, CA

In 1978, as soon as Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337 making homebrewing federally legal for the first time since before Prohibition, an intelligent, passionate and independent bunch of homebrewers quickly went to work, legally. As they moved into microbrewing, they rejected the impeccable business attire of craft’s pioneer, Fritz Maytag. Rugged Jack McAuliffe was getting his jeans dirty at New Albion. Full-bearded Charlie Papazian was urging his first disciples in hippy dippy Boulder to relax, not worry and have a homebrew. That other young bearded beer fanatic, Ken Grossman, was hiking the Sierra Nevadas, repairing bicycles and opening a homebrewing supply store in tiny Chico, California.

What Papazian, Grossman and other early craft brewers, with their passion and vision, have accomplished in the last forty years is truly amazing. But imagine the impact on the Brewers Association and Sierra Nevada when Papazian and Grossman retire. Likewise, imagine Boston Beer without Jim Koch or Deschutes without Gary Fish, Dogfish Head without Sam Calagione. Imagine the thousands of smaller craft breweries in the U.S. today as their founders retire.

Undoubtedly, some will be bought up by larger breweries. Some have grown so large that you can no longer just knock on, say, Kim’s door at New Belgium. Granted, there are many passionate and hard-working individuals in craft today who will carry it forward, but will their passion keep alive that early, almost missionary, zeal of the founders?

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