“Should the best stay small?” was the title of the response piece to the New York Times article. It was in reference to Hill Farmstead Brewery capping production at 5000 barrels a year; and it wasn’t a rhetorical so much as an unanswered question.
Far be it from me to deny the Interwebs more vitally important bloviation on the sacred cows of craft beer: onward, citizens. It’s answerin’ time.
I need to state up front that I have not been one of the lucky to try a Hill Farmstead beer – I hope to rectify that in the near future, and, lacking any firsthand experience of the product, I am willing to take all the lauds, praise, lines of devoted waiting for growlers, and high scores on the Interweb beer rating sites at face value.
But even without the beer, we can talk about the adjectives in the titular question – “best” and “small.”
Small is fairly easy – it’s quantifiable. Small is less than big. If you’re the Brewer’s Association, “small” is any number of barrels fewer than Boston Beer Co. produced that year. And I think most of us can agree that there isn’t an inherent causal relationship between the physical footprint of a brewhouse or the capacity of its tanks and the quality of its beer.
Which isn’t to cast any aspersions on small breweries – they inspire cultish and/or hyperlocal devotion, they tell a great David-and-Goliath type of story that everybody can get behind. Some of my all-time favorite beers and brewery stories come from small operations: De Dolle, Dupont, Cantillon, Boon …
“Best” is wiggly, though – it’s more subjective and imprecise. Composed as it is of perception, it can be at the mercy of factors beyond control, or at least somewhat beyond consciousness.
My Belgian-heavy list of examples above may be a good example of one of those factors that features large in this discussion: the psychology of scarcity. Ditto the clamoring of out-of-town friends for Surly, or the way I hoard New Glarus beers every time I cross the Wisconsin border, or how I’m renting a U-Haul the next time I go to Jester King.
This kind of confirmation bias, right or wrong, plays to the strengths of small breweries and those with limited distribution. Scarcity and demand feed each other in a hoppy ouroboros, reputation and price spike, perhaps a black market even develops. The natural, subconscious tendency of any person who pays $85 for a six pack or buys a black market growler or makes a pilgrimage to stand in line for four hours to get a glass of beer is going to be to believe that it is the best beer in the world.
So, should the best stay small? Sure, if that’s what the small want. Mr. Hill seems to have a handle on that:
“I didn’t start this brewery so I could keep growing and move it away from here; that wasn’t the point,” he says. “It wouldn’t be fun anymore. It wouldn’t have purpose or meaning.”
I admire that commitment to sustainable, smart growth and clear long-term vision. With Hill as with De Dolle, or Worth Brewing, or Hess Brewing, or dozens of other garage-sized operations I’ve been lucky enough to drink in and read about, I think there’s real, undeniable charm in small breweries.
But I will say that some of my personal, subjective, at-the-mercy-of-factors, best beers come from bigger breweries, too; and farms of huge cylindroconical tanks full of beer are pretty damn cool to look at.
So I guess we’re back to where we started.