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Where politics stand in the taproom in 2017

Some breweries have become increasingly vocal about their stance on social and political issues, while others actively avoid hot-button topics.
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A community event at Mystery Brewing | Photo by Dtown Perspective

A community event at Mystery Brewing | Photo by Dtown Perspective

You don’t need me to alert you to the divisive nature of politics in 2017. Just open any news site—or, heaven forbid, Twitter—to see the level of kindness and civility marking the current state of civic dialogue. Amid this fracas, what role should politics play for breweries?

Some breweries have become increasingly vocal about their stance on issues, either by donating money or hosting events championing certain social and political causes. Some deliberately try to avoid the scrum, keeping their heads down with a neutral stance that they hope won’t alienate customers. Still others toe an increasingly thin line, hosting nonpartisan political-social events that aim to present multiple viewpoints. “Keep your politics out of my beer”? Good luck with that in 2017.

Businesses and livelihoods hang in the balance, but collectively there’s even more in play. At stake is whether breweries can hold on to their role as community centers at a time when Americans on opposite sides of a political issue can hardly stand to sit atop barstools next to each other.

Bars and taprooms have historically been called “public houses,” spaces for communities to gather, consider and debate the issues of the day. Beer was common ground, and bars could be a neutral turf for such discussion. Some breweries still hold out hope for this vision.

“I think what we’ve shown is that you can be responsibly having a craft beer and engage with the world in a positive way at the same time,” says Robert Rivers, cofounder of Missoula, Montana’s Imagine Nation Brewing. “This has been happening for 9,000 years. We’re just trying to in some ways continue those conversations. Our role is really continuing this legacy.”

At times it can feel as though that’s more difficult than it used to be. Rivers and his wife, Fernanda Menna Barreto Krum, founded Imagine Nation two and a half years ago as not just a brewery, but equal parts a brewery and education center. After 12 years of working in war zone conflict resolution in places like Romania and Sri Lanka, the duo opened the brewery to support their goal of community training, dialogue and progressive social change. It’s not always easy in Missoula, a university town whose majority voted for Hillary Clinton but whose home state voted 56.2 percent in favor of Trump.

“To have a viable project in a war zone, you need to have a viable relationship with all the stakeholders in the community. To translate that to running a business and trying to run a progressive agenda in let’s say a ‘purple’ community, I think it’s the same. Your physical security is not at risk but the security of your business is,” Rivers says.

Planned Parenthood holds a meeting at Imagine Nation | Courtesy of Imagine Nation

Planned Parenthood holds a meeting at Imagine Nation | Photo by Alex Wolfe

A chalkboard sign at Imagine Nation says that the brewery has been open for 130 weeks and has hosted an impressive 1,499 community events, including speakers on tough topics like immigration, healthcare and public lands. The taproom is plastered with flyers promoting various causes: One urges HIV testing; another announces that the Missoula Area Resistance Collective hosts regular meetings at the taproom; a piece of art promotes something called Ecological Civilization; another urges action on climate change. The wifi password is Bethechange.

Not all of this progressivism has gone over smoothly; Rivers and Krum have had to cancel or reschedule a few speaking events and workshops that were just too sensitive. While they make efforts to keep their programming nonpartisan, civil and constructive, they’ve found that some topics are still off-limits.

“Sometimes you get pushback and you say, yes, that’s to be understood, and we change our strategy ever so slightly and move forward. And then sometimes the pushback is so severe that maybe you’ve put your finger too deep into the cultural wound and you have to say, let’s wait a little bit on this,” Rivers says.

Ultimately though, the couple says their two-plus years in business prove that standing for social change can not only support a business, but help it grow.

“We came into this with the idea that if we built a brewery on a community and not just by ourselves for ourselves, that it could succeed in the United States of America,” Rivers says. “One thing we learned is, it can.”

A beer being poured at The Koelschip | Photo by Jes Nijjer, courtesy of Central State Brewing

A beer being poured at The Koelschip | Photo by Jes Nijjer, courtesy of Central State Brewing

In Indianapolis, the team behind The Koelschip beer bar and Central State Brewing Co. have also found it possible to push social issues in the taproom.

After Trump introduced his “Muslim ban” immigration order, cofounder and head brewer Josh Hambright says he felt rattled, angry and compelled to do more to support causes through his tap lines. Since then, the two lines pouring Central State beers at The Koelschip have donated $1 per pour to causes including the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Indy Pride Inc. and others. A few negative Facebook messages and Yelp reviews followed.

“I’m not worried if we lose a few customers, because we’re going to gain so many more,” Hambright says, adding that the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have held meetings at the bar or tweeted about their brewery. “But at the end of the day, that’s not why we’re doing it. [The bar] gives me a little bit of a megaphone; it amplifies my voice so I’m going to speak up for the stuff I believe in. If I’m silent because I’m going to offend customers, then that makes me a coward.”

To Hambright, local chapters of the ACLU or Planned Parenthood aren’t overtly political (“wanting health care and helping people avoid STDs or to not have unwanted pregnancies isn’t that liberal of a cause”) but he’s aware that some see them as enemy organizations.

“Those [charity] choices are deliberate. They’re timed on purpose to reflect what’s going on. We’ll have to see what horrible thing Trump screws up next and where we can give money to fix it,” he says.

Because Central State and The Koelschip are privately held companies without corporate shareholders to worry about, they’re free to run their business as they choose. Likewise, he says, customers who don’t want to buy their products because of their support of civil liberties, racial justice or LGBTQ initiatives are free not to.

“Everyone’s allowed to vote with their dollars,” he says. “If people don’t like that we take these stances, they’re more than welcome to not buy our beer. I’d rather Nazis not drink my beer, frankly.”

A flyer for Brews & Views at Half Moon Bay | Photo by Samaruddin Stewart

A flyer for Brews & Views at Half Moon Bay | Photo by Samaruddin Stewart

Half Moon Bay, California’s Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. has also used its tap lines to raise money for a nonprofit, though in a slightly different way. For past elections, including the bruising 2016 Presidential race, the brewery has created two versions of the same beer representing the two major-party candidates, dubbed its Alection series. Customers at the taproom can choose either beer, with a portion of proceeds benefiting Common Cause, a nonpartisan election watchdog group. (A note to amateur political pollsters: Cofounder Lenny Mendonca says the sales tallies for the beers usually end up mirroring the area’s election results.)

Half Moon Bay also hosts monthly Brews & Views speakers and documentary screenings, which draw anywhere from 50-100 people. Though they focus on serious topics from marijuana legalization to affordable housing to school board elections, cofounder Lenny Mendonca says they overwhelmingly remain civil and constructive.

“There’s a thirst for these forums where people can have real conversations,” he says. “You don’t often get a place where people are asking really good questions but don’t feel intimidated.”

Some of that civility may have to do with the demographics of Half Moon Bay’s surroundings, which are “about as Left Coast as it gets,” Mendonca says, meaning that most of the attendees probably hold lefty political views. Still, when the brewery brought in the former chair of the state’s Republican party who had just concluded his (unsuccessful) campaign for Senate, the forum was packed.

“I’m not saying this model is for everyone,” Mendonca cautions. “I wouldn’t suggest that people host extremely partisan views. The guy in Sacramento who ended up losing his business [when it was revealed that the brewery owner had posted anti-immigrant, anti-Women’s March posts on his personal Facebook page], that’s just not good business sense. What we’re doing is not controversial; if anything, it’s just being good citizens.”

Not all breweries have the luxury of hosting political events, though. Phil Wages, owner of Wages Brewing in West Plains, Missouri, says it’s a constant struggle to be apolitical while running his business.

“On Facebook, being in a small town, everyone sees all my opinions. I try to remain neutral but people read that,” he says. “When I’m standing behind the bar, I always try to remain neutral and not jump in the conversations unless I know everyone at the bar is of the same mindset.”

He’s learned to “compartmentalize” his political views and keep those as far from the brewery as possible. He tells his staff to be professional, even when they hear customers expressing opposing views. (He allows them an eye roll, out of view.)

“It’s totally because I wanted to get more people in the door,” he says. “It’s about making money but also people feeling like they can come here and not be assaulted by some left wing agenda. … We’d like to be honest about who we are and what we believe, but we have to think about the impact on our business if we speak our mind.”

Wages says that he has found a good listener in his state representative, a Republican, on issues related to his business, including raising the state’s ABV cap and potentially making it easier for breweries to self distribute. Areas related to business push even the most reluctant brewery owner into the political realm, no matter how averse or eager they are to take a stance.

Central State Brewing and The Koelschip team experienced the intersection of politics and business firsthand when Indiana passed the Mike Pence-championed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, in 2015. (The law has been widely criticized for allowing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.)

“RFRA opened our eyes to how important politics are to our business, especially as a business that does things out of state. We traveled to Chicago the next weekend [after it passed] and people were like ‘What the fuck is wrong with Indiana?’” Hambright says. “They were almost holding us responsible for that. It does reflect us.”

Beer then, if it’s your business, becomes by its nature a matter of politics.

“Business is inherently political. We’re one of the most, if not the most regulated industries out there,” says Erik Lars Myers, founder of Mystery Brewing Co. in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He’s also president of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, where he interacts with politicians “all the time, all day.”

“A business is made up of employees who are people and have lives; politics affects our health care decisions and what we pay and our taxation and all of those things,” he says. “There’s no part of what we do at a business that isn’t affected by politics so why not just embrace it, I say.”

Embracing politics comes with its own payoff and peril for breweries, and only time and customers’ dollars will tell whether wading into those perilous waters pays off. Of course, if a brewery measures its success with a metric other than the bottom line, the risk/reward calculation is based on a different formula entirely.

12 Comments

  • Evan says:

    Politics have no business in beer, and I will never buy from a brewery that supports leftist causes. You’d think that a business hurt by overregulation, with government policies in place that help out the macrobreweies at the expense of small craft breweries wouldn’t be in favor of the nanny state, but I guess craft beer has its problem with uneducated hipsters who like leftist nonsense. What a shame. It isn’t like gays drink beer anyway, so all they’re doing is alienating decent people to suck up to perverts who aren’t even interested in their product. I hope these businesses fail badly.

    • Kevin says:

      So, you’re in support of businesses, but want businesses to fail. Got it.

    • Tim Lovell says:

      You seem like a fun person. “It isn’t like gays drink beer”??? Please continue voting with your pocketbook, taprooms will be much more pleasant if you’re not there.

    • scott says:

      amen Evan, we can vote with our wallets. if they want to embrace their political views and use their business to support and push their agenda, then I too won’t support that brewery, no matter how good their beer is. and Draft Mag, you are right. tap rooms have been a place for many view points but when you get the dems/leftist/antifa/BLM all trying to suppress the other sides point of view, doesn’t it totally go in the face of their “inclusion/open mindedness” and 1st amendment????? unfortunately, they are the total opposite. They hate capitalism and gov’t control yet they operate here in the US. if the US is so bad then why stay here? move to a liberal/socialist country and see how well you do. the left has gone so far left, I don’t think they will every come back.

      • willem hammersbach says:

        but if brewery is pro white republican jesus freaks then youre a ok with brewery stating its opinion? scott and evan are those man children who talk smack then get triggered when others have opinion,scott needs to see his hypocrisy in his comment #FVCKDRUMPF

  • Bob says:

    Given a choice between going to an activist brewery or one that limits it’s political conversation to craft beer legislation, I would choose the latter. Having a beer out socially is supposed to bring people together, and I’m sure it does if all the people think the same way. It is not a place I want to be when tempers flare up. It is also unfortunate in our society that people with differing views cannot seem to have a reasoned, civil conversation anymore.

  • Richard Geertson says:

    The author contributes to the political divide in this country by doing what President Trump (and so many of us) find so incredibly abhorrent and damaging to political discourse. In reference to The Koelschip beer bar and Central State Brewing Co., she mentions the owner’s response after Trump’s “Muslim ban.” PLEASE get your facts straight! The President did NOT ban Muslims from coming into the U.S. He proposed a temporary halt aimed at 6 countries on the terror watch list, that are predominately Muslim. At present there are 48 majority Muslim countries in the world and our president focused on just 6 that have demonstrated a proclivity to export terrorism. PLEASE do not contribute to the mis/dis information campaign that seems ubiquitous among those who don’t like this president. It isn’t honest nor is it healthy for our republic.

  • Wade says:

    I don’t mind politics and beer. What I do mind, however, is condescending attitudes and blatent biases being presented as “reporting”. This article was slanted so far left it left a bitter taste, and not in a deliciously balanced IIPA kind of way.

  • J.S. says:

    I don’t care if it’s lefty politics or the far right whack jobs, keep that **** away from my alcohol. If you want to spout off about the latest cause of the week or want to defend whatever crazy view you have, do it away from the pub and please for the love of God, do not display it on your can or bottle. Those wacky Trump or Hillary labels or parodies might seem like a good idea, but more than likely they shouldn’t make it past Twitter or 4chan. Even as a bar owner, the “expert” above should know that even if he loses several customers because of a view, he might also lose more potential customers if he is a pompous jerk and isolates his long-time customers.

    We can’t have anything nice anymore because everybody is a “political expert”, and yes those quotes are there for a reason. The last time I got into a political discussion at the bar, it was fairly level and civil and then it ended up getting rather vocal (not from me.) Besides, doesn’t everybody know there are two things you discuss at the bar: politics and religion. ;)

    • willem hammersbach says:

      yup im a 75% lefty with 25% far right views i would not like my go to place to start getting into politics even when i agree,politics should be a topic that organically comes up (or not) between patrons,one can agree or debate but thats it, you can walk away or stay talking

  • Cory says:

    Please Draft, keep politics out of beer. I get hit by politics from so many sources that I’ve begun limiting what shows up in my feed. I’d hate to feel like I needed to do that with your page or unsubscribe from the Draftmag mailing list. Beer is something I want to keep fun.
    Seriously, stop it now.

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