Microbreweries as Tools of Local Identity

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. During the 1990s, over 1,500 microbreweries sprouted and flourished across the country. This expansion of microbreweries derives, in part, from the desire of people to break away from the smothering homogeneity of popular, national culture. Such breweries are often proudly and self-consciously local, sporting local historical photos, maps, and other artifacts of a place's personality as part of the decor. Geographer Wes Flack has hypothesized that the growth of such establishments is a prime illustration of a movement termed "neolocalism," in which people are attempting to reconnect with the local, the personal, and the unique. The microbrewery industry has undergone rapid expansion and major upheaval in the decade since Flack first carried out his research. This study examines recent trends in the industry and determines that his original thesis is as valid as it was when he first offered it. The core of this paper is an analysis of how ale names and visual marketing imagery are used by microbreweries to tap into this powerful feeling, and of the ways that these images serve to create local loyalties and identities. We argue that such imagery offers us a valuable window into the process of neolocalism--the active, conscious creation and maintenance of attachment to place.

INTRODUCTION

The owners of the Sioux Falls Brewing Company proclaim on the brewery's web page that, "in every community, there is one establishment that reflects the personality of its people; a place where the beer and the food and the conversation have a distinct local flavor" (SFBC 2002). The establishment the writer is referring to is the local brewpub. While it would be easy to dismiss this statement as commercial hype, upon further reflection, it really is not that far off the mark. These brewers are simply noting a growing national trend of which they are a part. Over the past fifteen years, more than 1,500 small-scale brewpubs and microbreweries (1) have opened and flourished across the country (Real Beer, Inc. 2002). These breweries represent a fundamental shift in the nature of brewing and beer consumption, one with distinctly geographical implications. In terms of percent of the beer market, of course, these microbreweries represent only a small fraction of the total. But what the microbrew drinkers lack in volume, they make up for with their devotion to the new, the unique, and the local.

The beers brewed by the microbrewers have more distinctive flavors than the lagers brewed by Budweiser, Coors, or Miller. Instead, they are a diverse array of ales that can be found nowhere else, creating a truly local experience. At the same time, they offer a reprieve from the rising sea of giant national chains that have taken over retailing in every realm and crushed local businesses. Many brewpubs have also catered to our craving for uniqueness by providing one-of-a-kind social settings, commonly decorated with local historical photos, maps, and other artifacts of a place's personality.

In part, the growth of microbreweries simply reflects a change in taste. Most microbreweries put the bulk of their effort into darker ales, more akin to European beers, than into the light lagers that characterize the American industry giants. We suggest, however, that the proliferation of microbreweries also derives in part from the desire of people to break away from the smothering homogeneity of popular, national culture, and reestablish connections with local communities, settings, and economies. This tendency is a movement that has been termed "neolocalism" (Flack 1997; Shortridge 1996; Shortridge and Shortridge 1998).

Geographers and other observers of the American scene have long bemoaned the obliteration of local character and identity in our communities (e.g., Relph 1976; Kunstler 1993). Scholars, however, have paid little attention to the myriad small ways that people are attempting to reclaim a sense of place and a distinctive landscape in the face of our globalizing economy. …