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.
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.”
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.”
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.