Build Back with Beer (Craft Beer, to be Precise…)
February 25, 2022
Written by BEN SPEGGEN
When veteran journalists James and Deborah Fallows spent four years criss-crossing the U.S. looking for what makes small-town revivals succeed, they repeatedly found one near-constant: craft breweries
There are various ways to measure the civic success of towns and cities large and small. From economic development initiatives to innovative educational opportunities to inspiring, inviting river walks, these signs illustrate not only what’s working now, but also who is making a town work. Hidden among these big-picture, big-policy initiatives, however, is a sly, fun, but very potent player: craft breweries and their rising cousin, small distilleries.
Surprising as it may be, it turns out that a place’s vitality can be fairly reliably measured by the number of taps and bottles pouring local libations. But the axiom has held true for roughly four decades. “A town that has them also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young customers,” James Fallows writes in the final chapter of “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” which he co-authored with his wife, Deborah.
In addition to showcasing a place’s entrepreneurial spirit, and serving as a kind of modern-day agora, breweries and distilleries also play an outsized role in a dynamic that is critical to any city, large or small. Call it place-making.
Take Bent Paddle Brewing Company in Duluth, Minn., for instance. Over the years, Bent Paddle has breathed new life into its community, giving people a good reason (good beer!) to go back into its corner of Duluth: the ex-industrial district of Lincoln Park. Over time, other businesses—a restaurant here, a small office there, food trucks around the corner—followed. That pattern, the Fallowses found, has basically replicated itself coast to coast.
Tighe (pronounced “tie”) is featured in the 2021 HBO documentary, “Our Towns,” which continues the Fallowses’ reporting on stories of American renewal. In Charleston—the capital city in West Virginia that’s been experiencing population loss since the 1960s—Tighe, along with his sister, Megan Bullock, and other members of the family, have been at work rebuilding the once-dilapidated Elk City neighborhood in Charleston brick by brick. Their efforts have included rehabbing historical buildings, moving in new businesses, and even contracting a local artist to paint a mural on the entire side of one of their buildings. In the film, viewers see Tighe’s first project, Bully Trap Barbershop, and what followed: Elk City Records, Books and Brews, and a project that was just underway: The Bullock Distillery.
The small-batch distillery began production in April 2021, just over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Now comes the familiar part of the pandemic story: supply-chain disruptions, which in the distillery’s case primarily meant bottle shortages. “C’est la vie,” says Tighe. So they limped by with whatever bottles they could find—”nothing that would distinguish us in a new market.”
Barrels, however, were even harder to come by. But good old made-in-the-USA ingenuity saved the day, in ways that businesses dependent on overseas suppliers could not have achieved. Only two hours southeast of Charleston, a new company called the West Virginia Great Barrel Company, in Caldwell, W. Va., soon opened its doors.
To be fair, the pandemic has been kinder to the wine and spirits industry than it has been to many others. In Charleston, for example, Tighe has noticed that people with discretionary money, unable to go to concerts or take vacations, have been drinking a little more at home. Some have also started collecting favorite spirits. (Curiously, some of this demand was spurred by executive orders from governors to help keep the liquor industry afloat. Many of those executive orders have been or are on their way to becoming state laws across the country—a nice thank-you present for craft breweries and distilleries.)
Erie, Pennsylvania, like Charleston, has been wrestling with population decline since the 1960s. But over the past decade, more and more craft breweries have bubbled up—so much so that 14 brewers have now joined forces to create the Lake Erie Ale Trail. Foremost amongst them is the award-winning Lavery Brewing Company, situated in the heart of the city. (If you’re interested in joining for more than a tour, you’ll have to wait until 2023. Memberships, to be a Lake Erie Ale Trail Enthusiast, are already sold out for 2022.)
In 2019, Lavery Brewing had a record year; then came the pandemic. “It crushed us,” says Jason Lavery, the brewery’s co-founder. “It forced us to step back and reexamine ourselves at the DNA level—what’s working, what’s not, how do we keep moving forward.” Their answer was to close a recently opened second location (in Titusville, the “birthplace of the oil industry”), focus on their core flagship, rethink their kitchen menu, add delivery and pick-up services, and shift their overall business model: less beer on tap, more bottles and cans.
Around the time the Bullock Distillery was ramping up, MenajErie Studio released a “Meet Erie” mini-documentary series. Published by the Our Towns Civic Foundation, the four-part series explores the economic, cultural, and social impact of the pandemic from the viewpoints of government officials, nonprofit leaders, and business owners—including Jason Lavery.
Jason actually credits the pandemic for pushing him to listen even more closely to his customers. “We saw diehard regulars increase their spending,” he says. “A couple that would’ve come in pre-pandemic and spent $30 was now spending $60. They were investing in us. We wanted to be sure we were listening to them.”
That listening led a brewery, best known for an award-winning fleet of IPAs, to churn out more sours, create a seltzer, and introduce new lagers—all from the input Jason got from loyal consumers and supporters. Today, Lavery Brewing Co. produces as much beer out of one location in 2021 as they did from two in 2019. “We want people to have to come to visit, to be in Erie to experience our beer,” he says. “We’re hyperlocal because we believe in our community, and it believes in us.”
If there’s any lesson that craft breweries can offer other businesses, it would be to put an economic spin on a remark made decades ago by Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: “All politics is local,” O’Neill famously said. That could describe the business model of Max Taps, a popular taproom that’s a half-hour south of Denver, Colo., in Highland Ranch. Max Taps doesn’t brew its own, but it quickly built a reputation for featuring a wide variety of beers and wines with one thing in common: They’re all local to the region. After opening just five years ago, in 2017, Max Taps now offers more than 50 taps for wines and beers solely from Colorado.
Max Taps founders, Dave and Shelly Gardner, also built a reputation for hosting community benefits, raising more than $265,000 for various causes. Most recently, Dave, Shelly, and the Max Taps crew put out a call for donations of clothes and goods for those affected by the Marshall Fire, the devastating wildfire that, to everyone’s shock, hit the Boulder, CO, community in the middle of winter, in January 2022. Their call led to truckloads of donations.
“We have a platform with Max Taps that allows us and our patrons to help those in need,” Dave told Our Towns contributor Carl Hunt. “We love to support the community as it has also supported us so well through the pandemic. We wouldn’t have survived Covid without their support, and it’s great to be able to give back.” And, even during a pandemic, the community keeps giving back, too. Max Taps is doing so well that Dave and Shelly just opened a second location (in Centennial, about 10 miles away, in a region called the Denver Technology Center).
Craft breweries and local distilleries, it seems, can offer a lot more than a delicious drink. By almost seamlessly blending business with a sense of community, they also brew a spirit of civic success.