46. Cult of Personality: Koch, Watt, Teetering Pedestals, & Debt
Nobody asked for this but I watched "The Beer Jesus from America" and I have thoughts; plus more ridiculous cease-and-desist letters, beer fest safety talk, and tarot for drinking a gose.
“It’s Not Too Expensive, You’re Too Cheap”: Craft Beer’s Rock Star Era and the Price We’re Paying for It Now
I had never seen “The Beer Jesus from America,” which is weird, because there aren’t really a ton of interesting (for better or worse) beer docs out there so usually when one comes out, I pounce. Recently, in light of all Stone’s lawsuits and injunctions and financial woes, I thought it might be fun to do some kind of live-newsletter-ing of viewing the movie, maybe turned into some kind of drinking game. I tweeted about it, and was met with crickets, so I could have accepted that no one thought this was a particularly compelling idea.
Reader, I did not.
My curiosity got the best of me and I watched the film this past weekend, and I’m not doing homework for nothing over here so buckle up, because I’ve got to write about it. I decided on a more measured approach than documenting myself on some kind of bummer solo drinking game (also I honestly did not want to get drunk and certainly not for this shit), which is for the best because I ended up taking away some different observations than I thought I would going in.
I was mainly distracted by the cult of personality factor in craft beer. I thought this was old enough news that I wouldn’t be focusing on this watching a 2018 doc, but seeing Greg Koch dressed like he’s about to give a TED Talk screaming about beer to a crowd of rowdy and adoring fans before stage-diving will really fix your attention back on this phenomenon. Watching him stand before another crowd of people and preach about how his beer will show them why their own (incredibly rich) beer culture is so lame sure will, too.
I felt deep secondhand embarrassment watching Koch, a grown adult human, earnestly talk about how Stone’s gargoyle mascot protects the brewery against evils like pasteurization. But, like, those were the times, right? This is what we talk about all the time, that before we all started to wake up to the reality of pervasive discrimination, abuse, sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on and so forth within craft beer, it was all just an epic underdog adventure. Fighting the villains of Big Beer to save the masses with independently made craft beer felt somehow noble. No one was even thinking about things like how employees at these breweries might have been getting treated, because the thought that these scrappy heroes could do anything wrong, especially something that the big bad corporate guys might do, never even crossed anyone’s mind. I would also argue that in general, pre-Trump, a lot more Americans had a lot more luxury in terms of not thinking about politics and urgent human rights issues all day every day. Obama was president; things for many people, especially those who could afford craft beer and felt spoken to by it, were pretty okay. Okay enough to get constantly and passionately fired up about how much Big Beer sucks.
What a rush. If I sound like I’m mocking everyone who thought this way, let me be perfectly clear: I did this! Before it ever occurred to me that I might not always have, say, the right to an abortion, or that if I worked at a craft brewery or simply attended a beer festival I could be harassed or worse—let alone that this could happen, and often more likely so, to so many other people with less privilege than I could enjoy—I too thought rallying the troops to replace Big Beer with craft beer in the hands of every American was a valiant effort. I don’t at all judge the excitement and enthusiasm so many of us had—I just talked about this last week, but there are still plenty of valid reasons to have this kind of enthusiasm today, from pure and simple escapism to feeling motivated to help better the industry. But I do, personally, feel grossed out by the tone-deaf ignorance of it—how could so many of us not realize and not acknowledge that most people in the United States felt actively excluded by craft beer, from its marketing and culture to its price point? In “The Beer Jesus,” the camera at one point flashes across a sticker Koch or someone at Stone has put up, reading “It’s not too expensive, you’re too cheap.” Wowowowow. That attitude was so common just a handful of years ago and, uh, guillotine!
It is this behavior that gave us over-the-top personalities in craft beer, personalities who would represent the “fight,” lead us craft beer flag-wavers, and galvanize the masses, Koch and his buddy James Watt being arguably the most prolific and, let’s be honest, fucking obnoxious. I don’t think Koch ever matched Watt in the actual “cult” part of “cult of personality,” considering Watt manipulated his suckered-in fan base into investing in his flimsy and self-important mission, but the same energy is there. I do think it’s interesting that at one point in “Beer Jesus,” Koch explains why he acts the way he does in front of crowds, and perhaps I’m not being cynical enough, but for a moment, I did kind of relate. He revealed that a lot of the song-and-dance schtick was a sort of over-compensation for social anxiety. He even admitted that he realized it probably “doesn’t play well on film” and that he knew he looked like a pompous asshole. Which…okay! I respect a little self-awareness.
The other dynamic that I think came into play with characters like Watt and Koch, in addition to the out-of-touch obsession with converting every beer drinker to craft, is the whole rock-star effect that has come for plenty of other industries, the biggest example coming to mind being food and the trend of suddenly letting chefs behave like Keith Moon. It’s basic and common af to dream of being a rock star, and almost no one is a rock star, turns out, so it’s not surprising that every other industry outside of music is infested with wannabe famous musicians. And guess what Koch thought he was going to do before he got into beer! Yep.
Look, I’m not saying we should even treat rock stars like rock stars, but putting a pin in that larger, separate issue, isn’t it wild that we let this translate to literally any other trade that shares the loose thread of being somewhat creative? Cooking in a restaurant, brewing beer in a brewhouse, these are jobs, even if they’re passions, too. They’re everyday jobs with responsibilities and human beings depending on them and needing fair, equitable, supportive management. It’s preposterous, essentially, that we let anyone’s ego grow as Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-float-sized as someone like Watt’s or Koch’s. Watt is now such a megalomaniac he thinks people speaking up about the poor treatment, discrimination, and even trauma they endured working at BrewDog are just out to get him. And Koch got so high on his own supply he thought the German people desperately needed him to rescue them from their own long, iconic beer culture. I mean, to be in Berlin for like, two hours, and declare to a room of Germans that you are going to take down the Reinheitsgebot is, whew, really something. Absolut lächerlich, you might say.
Luckily, craft beer’s rock star syndrome seems to have abated, for a few reasons. For one, craft beer no longer feels like an industry in need of a David Koresh with the antics of Gallagher to whip the crowds into a frenzy. The time has just passed. Craft beer is here, and there are people who are going to love it and people who are going to totally not care about it, and the world just keeps on turning. We all know now that there are bigger problems, and more important matters to get tough about—the aggressive nature of BrewDog’s “punk” ethos and Stone’s aggressive, Arrogant Bastard-esque identity feel irrelevant and outdated.
Which leads to a second reason, which is simple craft beer trends. There are over 9,000 breweries in the US now; there were about 4,000 when Matt Sweetwood started filming Koch’s mission to build a Stone brewery in a Berlin suburb for “Beer Jesus.” In the years before that, the industry felt small enough that it made sense we would all look to our Sam Calagiones as the faces of the movement. Now, the industry is twice the size, much more scattered in vision and ambition, and in an attempt to keep the focus on the beer itself, it feels much trendier for a brewer to go so far as to stay off the radar entirely.
And then, of course, there’s the sea change in craft beer since May of 2021. A lot of our “rock stars”—or, considering they weren’t big Kochian or Wattian personalities but instead just placed on pedestals by fans of their beer, our “revered brewers”—like Shaun Hill and Jean Broillet IV turned out to be bad actors. Idolizing anyone in craft beer graduated from feeling silly to feeling irresponsible. Now, we save our admiration, support, and willingness to be led for the people leading action for positive change in this industry.
The hangover for the rock star era is here and it can be pretty grim for some. Not for Shaun Hill, somehow, golden god with still devoted fans that he inexplicably remains to be. But, of course, Broillet stepped down, and Watt continues to lose confidence from the industry with every narcissistic, paranoid, destructive decision that he makes. Koch, meanwhile, has danced Stone into debt-ridden, damaged-reputation territory, which I think is a shame for other well-meaning people working there. Watching him try to build that brewery in Berlin’s Mariendorf, it’s hard to find any trace of him being in touch with reality. So much time and so much money only for the location to very predictably close within a few years. And Stone has spent other periods of its life on embarrassing endeavors like issuing a trademark cancellation request against small Kentucky brewery Sawstone—as well as doing that in about 100 other instances with other parties. Stone doesn’t only go for the little guy, of course; we’ve all gotten to enjoy watching them try to make the case that a Stone drinker might actually be confused by Keystone Light’s branding. All that while turning around and doing the same thing to Charlotte’s Sycamore Brewing, who have been granted an injunction against Stone for using their trademarked “Keep It Juicy.”
There are, of course, a whole host of reasons at play in accounting for Stone’s staggering $464 million debt. It’d be satisfying af for it to be as simple as Koch not understanding or trying to understand other beer cultures and markets before marching into build absurdly huge, complex satellite locations. But the brewery has years of different decisions, leaning into different products and categories, and that has all carried on in the face of a changing market. One can’t help but think, however, that surely Koch’s heady reign played a significant role. Another weird but true and undeniably not great consequence of craft beer’s earlier rock star era.
Sazerac Pulls a Koch
This seems worth noting here, as it’s right in line with this discussion: Sazerac, an international, multi-billion-dollar spirits company, sent Torch & Crown, a New York City craft brewery, a cease and desist over its Grind coffee porter, which Sazerac claims is infringing upon its Grind Espresso Shot rum. This claim actually might achieve the unthinkable, being more ridiculous than Stone’s claim that a Stone drinker might be confused by Keystone Light’s branding. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which a shopper confuses Torch & Crown’s can of beer for Sazerac’s bottle of liquor. Only here, instead of a big brewery setting its sights on a giant beer company, it’s a giant liquor company setting its sights on a very small brewery (so a little more along the lines of Stone gunning for Sawstone, only crazier). One that makes an entirely different product. A product that is actually not even covered by Sazerac’s trademark—apparently, it is for “alcoholic beverages except beer.” I’m at a loss for how this cease and desist even moved forward. But I highly recommend going over to Instagram to read Torch & Crown co-founder and CEO John Dantzler’s excellent letter to Sazerac.
Kimberley Owen’s Chat with BrewLDN Organizer Chris Bayliss
Speaking of Instagram: Kimberley Owen, aka @craftbeerpinup, has yet another important, impactful Instagram Live up, this time with one of the BrewLDN beer festival’s organizers, Chris Bayliss. Kimberley has been a fearless leader in pushing for safety and a welcoming, discrimination-free environment festival at beer festivals always, and especially since it became crystal clear just how short many fest organizers had been falling last year. As always, Kimberley asks the hard questions, and this is a must-watch chat. Like many festivals, it seems like BrewLDN has indeed taken some valuable steps, which is encouraging, but there is absolutely work to be done, some of which feels frankly a bit inexcusable at this point. For example, I don’t think you’ll like the explanation for why BrewDog is still on the bill, because I sure know I don’t…and I really appreciate Kimberley’s fair, incisive, thoughtful, and assertive interviewing here.
Talking Beer Fest Safety with HenHouse Brewing
And speaking of beer fest safety! HenHouse Brewing invited me onto their podcast, the HenHouse Unruffled Podcast to go deep on the specifics of safety at festivals, from what we need to why we need it and what these measures involve. This is ahead of their Freshtival fest, on June 25. I’m super grateful for the opportunity to get into it on beer fest safety and inclusivity, and I feel encouraged by a brewery like HenHouse taking the time to have these conversations. The team seems really open and dedicated to continuing to apply more measures at their events, which is what we want to see from all breweries since we’re always learning and realizing what more can be done. I appreciate the open dialogue, and I think this is a worthwhile conversation to listen in on if you’re planning, working, and/or attending beer fests.
This week, I pulled The Chariot.
The Chariot speaks to determination, willpower, control, and success. I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of cards lately that are about forks in the road, how can you make decisions, how you can find clarity. Fittingly, The Chariot shows up when you’ve made a decision about something and you’re ready to move forward. Like a boss. In a strong and steady blaze of glory—chariots of fire. (I hope things turned out well for the, uh, chariot riders? In that film? Never saw it.)
The Chariot should encourage you: Whatever decision you’ve made, it’s a good one. No more hesitating. It’s time to make moves on that choice, and you’re going to need some commitment, dedication, willpower, and determination to take the first step and the one after that and the one after that—knowing all along that this path is leading to some sort of success and positive outcome. You may face real challenges along the way, but The Chariot wants to remind you that you got this. Stay the course, because you deserve the good things that await.
Conveniently, Urban Artifact has a seasonal gose called Chariot. Not so conveniently, its season is actually autumn. But, a tart cherry gose in the fall? Sounds like a beer-drinking decision worth courageously marching through spring and summer toward, right? And in the intervening months, I suppose you could enjoy another beer or two. How about a different gose, like the Briney Melon from Anderson Valley? That sounds like a good one for a warm day, if that ever comes where you are (because it sure doesn’t seem to be coming here in New York).
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
For Beer Is For Everyone, Kerri Brown interviewed Iris Adriana Castillo, who has now generously shared her story here and on her Instagram page—the story is an example of an inexcusable trend in all industries, but certainly all too alive and well in craft beer. It’s not an option to skip past this story, and it’s not an option to not think about all the other people being taken advantage of, taken for granted, and tokenized. Iris is one of many women of color expected to do things like appear on “diversity” panels at beer events. For free. Who wins here? The brewery or organizer hosting the event, that’s who. They get to check a box, “Look, we had a woman of color, we let her use her voice!” And people who get asked to do these events are being asked to once again explain things to white people, relive past traumas, essentially put out a hand to help white people not discriminate against them…? For free. This happens constantly. Read this story. And if you’re planning an event or want DEI consulting, etc. pay people. And do the work you need to do, too. Make real changes, not ones that you think look nice on Instagram.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
On Tuesday, the Pink Boots Society NYC chapter had its meeting (meetings are open to all women and non-binary beer-interested friends, keep an eye out for future events!) at Wild East Brewing, and the educational portion was a beer-and-cheese pairing. Beer and cheese are the two most important food groups to me, so adding that to getting to catch up with the lovely beings of the NYC-and-beyond beer scene made for almost too good a meeting to be true. Maribeth Coons from Brooklyn Larger led a super fun and informative session on the cheeses, and wouldn’t you know, I had never tasted cheese that analytically before. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to break down the flavors and aromas in cheese the way I do with beer. That was in addition to a breakdown of Wild East’s (superb as always) beers, along with a guide to individual pairings. I left with much more knowledge about cheese and about beer-and-cheese pairings, I’ll tell ya that—and, oh, Wild East’s Prevernal Love maibock and a raclette Swiss for the win.
Until next week, here’s a throwback of Darb at Evil Twin.