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Fritz Maytag, Jim Koch, Ken Grossman. Sam Calagione, Rob Tod, Greg Koch.
The early champions of American craft beer are household names, such is the enduring influence and status they exert. These mostly former homebrewers—and other cisgendered, heterosexual white men like them—founded visionary breweries, built empires, and became executives and luminaries of an industry in ascent, or so the story goes. We still tend to view them, and those who have followed in their wake, as singular male geniuses—men who are not only synonymous with the breweries they created, but inextricable from those breweries’ identities.
That laudatory instinct is not unique to beer: It appears everywhere from architecture and technology to the restaurant world. It’s a falsehood, of course—one that, within the context of beer, ignores the precedent set by millennia of women, queer folks, and people of color brewing in homes and in small community contexts, not to mention the fact that most beers are innately collaborative products. But it’s a seductive narrative nonetheless.
“The reason that the storyline of the genius founder emerged was that it made for great copy,” says Tom Acitelli, author of “Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution.” “Back then, it might have been exotic for somebody from Washington, D.C. or New York City to parachute into a remote area of the Rocky Mountains, or to some warehouse on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, and talk to some working-class artisan. It became a human interest story.”
The further the myth spread, the deeper it embedded in industry dogma. When many craft beer founders opened their breweries, they hired their friends, or people who looked, talked, thought, and acted like them. Over time, that affable dynamic began to look like a cult of personality. As the craft beer revolution spread globally, this model also took hold in the U.K. and Europe, where brewing was already a gladhandy boys’ club.
“We ended up with a lot of dudebros who create spaces that feel really comfortable for them,” says A.J. Cox, a brewer and anthropologist working at Heaney Farmhouse Brewery in Northern Ireland. “Craft beer has developed around the male psyche in the last 20 years. Anybody who doesn’t fit a cisgendered-white-dude vibe has to elbow their way in.”
At the same time brewery figureheads like Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery, Jacob McKean of Modern Times Beer, Jean Broillet IV of Tired Hands Brewing Company, and James Watt of BrewDog were being accused of constructing cultures of discrimination, misogyny, and abuse, other breweries were making advances in the form of alternative business models—forging a new narrative defined by decentralization, collaboration, cooperation, and collectivism. Craft beer’s #MeToo outpouring of 2021 raised an existential question: Have we been doing it wrong this whole time?
“The culture of the ego is a real thing that affects us all,” says Jake Griffin, a nomadic brewer who brews under the label Up Front Brewing in Glasgow, Scotland. “Some people, it goes to their head, and they’re like a god. There are people I know, who other people swear were salt-of-the-Earth good guys, and then they started one of these big breweries, and now it turns out they’re an absolute piece of shit.”
“We end up with a lot of dudebros who create spaces that feel really comfortable for them. Craft beer has developed around the male psyche in the last 20 years. Anybody who doesn’t fit a cisgendered white dude vibe has to elbow their way in.”
— A.J. Cox, Heaney Farmhouse BreweryThe alternative class of collaboratively minded brewers are challenging the very concepts of ownership and capital, setting a vision for what craft beer could be if power and influence were shared, distributed, and held in check. Their focus is quality, novelty, even artistry. Some stay intentionally small and nimble; whatever it takes to disentangle the relationship between product and producer and encourage a new plurality. But it raises questions: Are these morals inherently baked into the business models? Can structuring breweries differently help safeguard against past abuses of power?
“This sort of spokesman-principal-genius [model] has outlived its usefulness,” Acitelli says, citing Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch as an example. “Maybe in 2007 or 2008, when Arrogant Bastard was a big deal, it was fun to have this rebellious guy out there. Now it’s just like, ‘Man, stop talking. I just want to enjoy the beer.’”
THE WORK OF MANY HANDS“Community-owned beer.”
Those were the words that made Andy Martinec pull over his car on N. Lamar Boulevard in Austin, Texas and pop into Black Star Co-op. Martinec had indeed stumbled on something rare: Black Star, founded in 2010, was the first cooperatively owned brewery in the United States.
“I had no idea what that meant at that time,” Martinec says. “There was something about ‘community’ that just really resonated with me.”
In practical terms, it meant Black Star’s customers could pay to become members. Membership allows certain privileges, such as discounted drinks and, in some cases, a share of profits. Today, Black Star’s ownership is made up of around 4,000 member-owners who pay a $150 lifetime fee. Member-owners democratically elect a board of directors to make business decisions that are enacted by company leadership.
Black Star was first established by Steven Yarak, Jeff Young, and Johnny Livesay, but the vision was never solely their own. When they met with the idea to bring a brewpub to the Highland neighborhood, 16 people were in attendance. When that meeting finally turned into a brewery four years later, it did so with $500,000 in funds raised by member-owners.
Martinec quickly became a regular and bought a membership. In 2012, he started working in the brewpub part-time. Then he took a job scrubbing floors and cleaning kegs. Over the years, the brewery founders went in different directions. In 2017, Livesay, Black Star’s last remaining founder, left to run other Austin-area restaurants, while continuing to lobby for fair labor practices.
In all the turnover, Martinec took over as the head brewer and beer team leader, a role he’s held since 2015. He’s become a spokesperson of the operation, often singing the praises of the brewpub and its pioneering commitment to fair labor practices in the press, but he knows it’s ultimately not about him. Black Star’s legacy is its principles, not personalities.
“The big question is, how do we prepare the next person to move forward or to change things?” Martinec says. “One person’s vision is not necessary to persist throughout the entire life of the business.”
Once Black Star established the co-op as a viable model, the idea spread nationwide. Evan Sallee, Niko Tonks, and Matthew Hauck, the founders of Minneapolis’ Fair State Brewing Cooperative, used to meet at Black Star when they were still dreaming of opening their own place. The Austin brewpub’s ideals of good worker relations, environmental sustainability, and community support—tenets Martinec says “[fall] in line with the equity of this business model”—drew them together. They took that inspiration and turned it into a company, opening Fair State in 2014 as the third co-op brewery in the country.
“We always thought that we had to do something different than just making good beer,” Sallee told Paste Magazine in 2016, “and this was something that we knew we could leverage into something special.”
Co-op breweries now operate in the U.S. in California, Montana, Ohio, and Seattle, as well as in Belgium, Mexico, Ireland, and the U.K. And the model is mutating: Black Star added a workers’ assembly in 2013, which allows each team within the company (kitchen, pub, business, and beer) to elect management and operate autonomously. 4th Tap Brewing Cooperative, which former Black Star brewer Chris Hamje co-founded in Austin in 2015, is a fully worker-owned co-op, as opposed to the more common consumer-owned model.
“The big question is, how do we prepare the next person to move forward or to change things? One person’s vision is not necessary to persist throughout the entire life of the business.”
— Andy Martinec, Black Star Co-OpIn 2019, Fair State employees joined Unite Here Local 17, making Fair State the first union microbrewery in America. According to Ian Sutherland, a beertender at Fair State and one of three union stewards, the brewery is still managed hierarchically. However, the mix of the co-op mentality and the union presence makes Sutherland feel—for the first time, as a trans person in the service industry—secure and protected.
“In a privately owned brewery, the CEO or owner, there’s not really another person to hold them accountable,” Sutherland says. Sallee and Fair State’s leadership openly embraced the union bid as a natural buildout of the co-op ethos, calling it “the democratic way.” Fair State is no longer an at-will employer, and executive power is checked and distributed by a group elected to uphold collective values. “It feels like [an acknowledgment] that we have the lived experience, talent, and ability to manage things on our own,” Sutherland adds.
But even with all the positive momentum, the co-op model is not a silver bullet against abuses of power. In the experience of Sutherland and their fellow steward Alicia Bird, not all member-owners are invested in promoting an equitable business; to the contrary, most just want the benefits and access that come with membership. When it comes to brewery leaders, tacking on the word “cooperative” is a good way to separate themselves and entice investors in a crowded market—but it also opens them up to the criticism that comes with failing to live their cooperative values.
“I’ve definitely heard of examples of quote-unquote ‘co-op businesses’ that almost exclusively decided to become a cooperative business because of that [uniqueness] factor,” Martinec says. “You’re just shooting yourself in the foot.”
Good Beer Hunting spoke with one source who left their board position at a U.K. co-op brewery over this precise issue. The source, who was granted anonymity for fear of retaliation, described the attitude of the board, verified by a former colleague, as “uncaring,” and that they were “bullshitting to members a lot of the time.”
“It had become a tick-box exercise,” the source said. “It was a way of raising funding at the beginning of the whole process, but in reality, other than to get people to support the business and buy more beer, there was no desire to involve members in decision-making or operate in accordance with cooperative principles.”
In other words, motivations matter. The co-op model can provide an external accountability system, but only when enacted so that members actually have a stake.
“If you’re committed to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion,” Sutherland says, “the easy decision is not usually a decision that is healthy for the business.”
A LESSON IN CO-OPETITIONIn the mid-1990s, another industry was being shaped by auteurs, accompanied by equally grandiose rags-to-riches mythologies: tech. There are the romantic backstories of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak, spinning code in the garages; sharing resources with other renegades until breaking out to found the companies that would define the future. Since then, the tech incubator model has been emulated across industries, including craft beer.
Rocky Mount Mills is an incubator in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, that transformed a cotton mill formerly operated by enslaved people into a creative space for artisans and entrepreneurs. Centered on breweries, the sprawling, 220,000-square-foot campus encompasses a 10,000-square-foot communal building with shared keg and canning lines, plus individual spaces for brewhouses, vessels, and storage. There are also a half-dozen outbuildings for restaurants, bottle shops, and standalone breweries.
The incubator operates on an “alternating proprietorship” model, where brewers rent tanks, space, and access to the brewhouse, but they own whatever product goes into and comes out of those tanks; during the brewing period, they also “own” the equipment, until the next brewer assumes responsibility. There is a base rent as well as a barrel fee, determined by the amount of beer produced each month. Brewers schedule turns on the canning line using the productivity app Basecamp—a tech-startup favorite—and the property is open 24/7.
On average, it costs between $500,000 and $1 million to open a production brewery and taproom. Incubators like Rocky Mount can provide onramps for those who don’t have access to huge capital investments. The first craft beer incubator opened in Houston in 2013—but it only lasted a year before being forced to close for hosting naked game nights. Today, only a few brewery incubators exist, and almost all are in the U.S., including Barley to Barrel in Milwaukee; Pilot Project and The Skeleton Key Brewery in Chicago; and Brew Hub in Lakeland, Florida.
Briana Brake of Spaceway Brewing, one of few Black female brewery owners on either side of the pond, brews out of the Mills. A homebrewer who re-evaluated her career trajectory after leaving law school to care for her sick mother, she thought she would enter the beer industry the old-fashioned way: by getting a brewery job and working her way up. But a lot of spaces didn’t feel welcoming. “I did apply to a couple places, but no one would hire me,” Brake recalls. “So I said, ‘Screw it, I’ll start my own thing, and then I won’t have to ask these people for a job.’”
Brake dreamed of opening a brewery in Durham, but getting loans proved its own challenge—a sadly common scenario. When she connected with Celeste Beatty, founder of Harlem Brewing Company and the first Black female brewery owner in America, at an educational event, Beatty enlisted Brake for a collaborative project, the Rocky Mount Brewing Company, at the Mills incubator. While the project was put on hiatus during the pandemic, here, Brake finally found the opportunity to start her own brewery.
These kinds of collaborations are a major advantage of the incubator model, with breweries not only pooling costs but ideas, recipes, and effort. It’s like the brewing equivalent of a shared conference room, says Evan Covington Chavez, real estate development manager at the Mills, where individual proprietors can come together to brainstorm and forge partnerships.
Writing for VinePair, Joshua Bernstein likened the accelerated growth offered by incubators to a “college crash course in building a beverage company.” Mobile canning lines arose in the mid-2010s as a response to the market problem of how breweries might share costs to leap into retail, and incubators take that line of thought to the next logical step.
“We call it ‘co-opetition,’” says Josh Parvin, co-owner of Koi Pond Brewing Company, which operates out of the Mills. “Even though we’re technically in competition with each other, brewing the same product and selling to the same demographics, we also cooperate really well. If you run into a problem, chances are [someone has] already solved that problem.”
For Brake, access to the Mills’ canning line helped get her beer in the hands of consumers, allowing her to not only brew, but build a brand. Spaceway, her brewery’s name, is taken from a song lyric by musician and activist Sun Ra. He was a prominent face of the Afrofuturist movement, which, Brake explains, “is about seeing Black and Brown people as leaders in spaces that they’re not typically seen.”
Craft consumers aren’t typically brand-exclusive, so being in a place of discovery opens opportunities. Beer is that rare industry where businesses can actually benefit from clustering together: Customers not only want variety, they like to crawl, seeking multiple beers and brands all in the same day. In this way, the spirit of co-opetition pushes the Mills’ breweries to constantly innovate, taking inspiration from each other.
“Inclusion is dope, but I want to see more ownership.”
— Briana Brake, Spaceway BrewingWithout co-opetition, Jason Stein, owner of New York’s Timber Ales, might still be a full-time accountant. Stein, also a beer writer, began homebrewing when he was between jobs, making barrel-aged Stouts and Barleywines in his childhood bedroom: filling bottles off barrels held in place by a dismantled barbell, surrounded by sports memorabilia. When his friends tried his beer, they told him he was onto something big.
One of those friends was Zac Ross of Marlowe Ales, who brews out of Connecticut’s Twelve Percent Beer Project: part incubator, part distributor, and, as Courtney Iseman wrote for Good Beer Hunting, part “collective, record label, and hype house,” it helped industry darlings like Evil Twin become household names. When Ross asked Stein if he’d ever consider making his Stouts at a place like this, Stein was intrigued. “I hadn’t thought about that at all,” he remembers thinking. “I just wanted to share my beer.”
Stein brought some beer to the incubator’s co-owners, who liked them so much they asked if he could—and would—scale his operation with them. Stein had a new day job by then and didn’t have the resources to quit. But the fact that Twelve Percent handles distribution and provides sales and marketing helped sway him. “That takes a lot of the pressure off,” he says.
Working with the incubator and tapping connections from his beer-writing background, by 2019, Stein had a business. In 2020, his first beer brewed under the Timber Ales name was a collaboration, of course: Vanilla Maris, an English Barleywine made in partnership with California’s Horus Aged Ales and New Jersey’s Mindful Ales. He’s been brewing two beers a month since then, and is still a full-time accountant.
In return for the startup support, Stein started Twelve Percent’s first barrel program, and he currently has 70 to 80 bourbon barrels aging in the incubator’s massive space. After all, the incubator brewery model thrives on mutual reciprocity—but it isn’t without its challenges. “Sometimes people are a little bit slack in cleaning the equipment the proper way, or leaving ingredients or cans or something in the way,” Parvin says of life at the Mills. “You have to work around it. It’s kind of like living with your family.”
That can include sibling rivalries. Unlike the Mills, where each brewery has its own taproom space, Twelve Percent has one taproom where all the breweries share handles, with up to 20 beers on tap at a time.“I don’t care what other people are doing in terms of recipes or process,” Stein says, but “customers are seeing 10 to 12 brands at once. I need to make sure that whatever is coming out at the end of the day and being presented to them is different.”
It can be a fine line between co-opetition and competition. Chavez cut her teeth in tech, where incubators are common routes for entrepreneurs to turn ideas into monolithic companies. She describes some of the Mills’ breweries as still in the startup phase, renting storage but sharing production and taproom space. Others, however, use the incubator as backup for offsite production or taproom facilities, expanding their capacity to move into regional distribution without the additional investment in real estate.
“That’s the incubator model as the dream,” Parvin says. “You get in there, lease the equipment, [and] push beer out the door, until you make enough money where you can buy your own premises and brew your own beer. Then you get out of there, and the next person comes in.”
Done right, incubators can expand the awareness of both brewers and customers as to what beer can be, who makes it, and who drinks it. Parvin says Brake was the first female brewer he’d ever met, and Brake describes customers driving for hours to connect with Afrofuturist culture through her beer. Even still, it’s not quite enough to level the playing field.
“It needs to be geared more toward giving priority to women and minority-group brewers to get a space to do what they want to do,” Brake says. “I’d like to start my own incubator space and co-op for minorities and women having the same problems that I had.”
ART THAT WANDERSIf the founders of Apple and Microsoft employed virtual and physical technology to build empires based on increasing efficiency, then artists are their antithesis: laboring over individual works for months, years, and lifetimes; producing pieces with high price tags that are often irreplicable. And therein lies its value. After all, says Griffin, “inefficiency is delicious.” He established Up Front as a nomadic brewery, eschewing a physical location to roam the Earth in search of creative inspiration and collaborative opportunities.
Griffin owns nothing but conceptual frameworks—names and usage rights—and stays focused on small-batch beers of high quality and cost, mostly Goses and Barleywines.
“I don’t like debt, and I don’t think a bank manager should tell me when the time is right for me to start a brewery,” Griffin says. “It seems crazy to me that you would compromise the quality of your beer in order to pay that debt back. I would rather produce less.”
In 2014, Griffin graduated from the University of Glasgow with a PhD in neuroscience, but quickly became disillusioned by academia’s obsession with prestige. Feeling more like an artist than a scientist, the homebrew hobbyist left research for Drygate Brewing Company to learn how a commercial brewery worked, doing (sanctioned) experiments with its equipment after hours. The funds to start his own brand, in 2016, came from pawning a couple of Banksy drawings he’d serendipitously bought in college; the first beer he sold under this label was a passionfruit and kalamansi Gose called Yojo, which featured augmented-reality label art designed by Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood, who liked Griffin’s anti-commercial ethos and agreed to lend his images.
“Nomadic brewing is a lifestyle choice,” Griffin says. “Doing what I want is what I love about this.” It sounds self-directed, but the nomad model comes with an inherent ego-check, since nothing these brewers do is possible in stasis.
Griffin loves the romance of the road; the relationships acquired along the way. From the Impressionists to Dadaist collectives, art has always thrived where creators could fuel one another through sharing space, physical and otherwise. Similarly, nomads brew using other people’s brick-and-mortars and equipment, chasing the serendipity and expansion that comes when minds collide.
Yet Up Front is far from the first nomadic brewery. The model was spearheaded, in part, by two other artistically minded brewers who pursued spontaneity and resisted being anchored to one spot. When Henok Fentie founded Omnipollo in Sweden in 2011, he was inspired by Belgian painter René Magritte and his communism-inspired approach to surrealism—where painters, photographers, and even fashion designers worked in a series, interpolating one central theme through their chosen medium.
“The base idea is that you could transmit from one form of expression to another,” says Fentie. “I had this idea that if I ever ran a company, I wanted to run it that way.”
Around this time, Fentie met Karl Grandin, a visual artist based in Stockholm, and pitched him the idea of opening a brewery that embodied these principles. Fentie would handle the beer, and Grandin would do the design. Grandin was on board, but Fentie only had $3,000 in startup money, a loan from his mother. There was no way the two surrealist dreamers could flip that meager sum into their own real estate.
Instead, Fentie leveraged relationships from his brewpub job and found them production space in other, established breweries. They brewed on short-term contracts, often collaborating with their hosts, and in exchange for the time and space, they would bring their artistic vision into the brewhouse.
At the same time, in Baltimore, Brian Strumke was plotting his own vagabond adventure. Strumke was a homebrewer and globally touring techno DJ who began brewing full-time when his DJ career ended. He was drawn to nomadic brewing for the same reason as Fentie: It was an invitation to travel the world and experiment with new collaborators. Early on, a friend introduced Strumke to Twelve Percent; like Stein, he immediately saw how the distributor could help establish a brand without the burden of leasing a building.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shit, this can be my record label,’” Strumke says. “From a creative standpoint, if I wanted to truly stick to my art, then spreading it far and wide was a safer bet than expecting just one specific local market to absorb your concept.”
Like those auteurs of first-wave American craft beer, the media fell in love with Strumke’s story. They called him a “gypsy brewer,” a term he originally embraced but has since abandoned because of its racist connotation (it’s still frequently invoked both in the U.S. and U.K.). NPR praised Stillwater right out of the gate, likening Strumke to “an old-world itinerant preacher.” In 2011, Stillwater was named the number-two best new brewer in the world by RateBeer.
For any traditional brewery, the logical next step would be commodification and mass-production. But throughout history, iconoclastic artists have operated on a communitarian, egalitarian ethos that dissolves traditional notions of ownership, and nomadic brewers are no exception. “I’m an anticapitalist at heart, and in some ways, it’s very weird that I’ve started a business,” Griffin says. “You can be against money, but still have to spend it, because it’s the dominant system.”
Up Front’s Giulia exemplifies this ethos. An English-style Barleywine blend that’s aged on figs and dates, it’s the product of six different brewing locations. Every time Griffin moved, the barrels came with him. When the end result proved unsatisfactory, he dumped it into a glass of another Barleywine he made that he was tasting at the same time, and the beer was born.
“That’s the beauty of collaboration,” Fentie says. “It’s almost always the case that the end result, both in terms of flavor and everything else around these beers, actually does come out better.”
Nomads aren’t inherently against growth; they’re just finding different, more decentralized ways to do it. Griffin subsidizes his more creative brews largely through the sales of one popular beer, a Gose called Das Ist Techno Sex: a variation of Yojo that swaps in lime for kalamansi. Demand for this beer is high enough that he flipped the script and contracted his brewing out to 71 Brewing in Dundee, Scotland, where he does all his canning.
Still, it can be a slippery slope from outsourcing to empire-building. Omnipollo now operates two bars in Stockholm as well as others in Hamburg and Tokyo that produce roughly one-third of its beer, and it just converted a church in Sundbyberg, Stockholm, into a flagship brewery/taproom. Strumke has found a semi-permanent production space at Native-owned Talking Cedar Brewery, Distillery, Tasting Room & Restaurant in Rochester, Washington; simultaneously, he’s planning outposts in Leeds and Brazil. These moves follow the steps of former nomads like Prairie Artisan Ales and Grimm Artisanal Ales, which transformed into more traditional breweries after starting on the road.
While the traditional, static brewery models don’t necessarily reproduce toxic cultures, owning physical space and equipment creates power dynamics that can quickly get complicated. By eschewing ownership, nomadic breweries could seemingly disrupt these structures, but that has not unilaterally been the case. It’s impossible to discuss the equity of the nomadic brewing model without pointing to Mikkeller: perhaps the world’s best-known nomadic brewery, now an empire notorious for its ongoing saga of workplace abuses.
Many nomadic breweries have also had to negotiate the fallout of partnering with businesses later marred by similar allegations. Up Front’s Techno Sex was born when a Glasgow BrewDog pub commissioned a Yojo-like beer for a festival. And both Stillwater and Omnipollo had ties to Tired Hands leading up to its own scandal (Omnipollo has continued to work with the brewery after reviewing its plans to establish an “equitable and fair workplace,” Fentie says).
Griffin is resisting, but sees home, family, and finance as inevitable frictions upon the nomadic path. He’s noticeably uncomfortable with his recent acquisition of a rental unit for his cans, tanks, and office equipment. Fellow nomad Harry Weskin is building a brew kit in the spartan, high-ceilinged warehouse, turning his Dookit Brewing Company into a full-time endeavor. The move is mutually beneficial, but as Griffin says, “as soon as we get a brewing license, we won't be [nomadic] brewers anymore.” For this reason, he plans to stay mobile as long as he can, versus using Weskin’s kit.
“It’s going to be a shame when I do have a home that I don’t have to leave,” Griffin says. “I never want to have a kit that is capable of more than two batches a month. I could certainly bring costs down significantly, but that would be at the expense of my lifestyle changing significantly.”
ETHOS NOT EGOA molecule is a group of atoms bonded together, held in covalent fellowship. This was the idea when three Swedish breweries—Chad Beer, Nerdbrewing, and Elmeleven—joined together as Molecule Brewing.
Molecule’s is a unique model: both one thing and many, exhibiting elements of the co-op, incubator, and nomadic structures. The breweries all started independently, but upon joining forces, they decided each would only produce the styles they were best at to create an all-star core range. Chad Beer, owned by Chad Paton, makes hoppy beers and Lagers. Nerdbrewing, by Hannes Gruber, brews Imperial Stouts, Barleywines, and other “big, heavy beers” that drive much of the demand. Elmeleven, by Anders Kvist, does fruited Sours and Berliner Weisses.
Standing out is particularly important in Sweden, because the Swedish government has a monopoly on direct-to-consumer alcohol sales: anything above 3.5% ABV can only be sold at Systembolaget, the state-owned store. Breweries can sell to the store, but marketing and lobbying to either the state or customers is strictly prohibited. They can sell to pubs in the traditional manner, bringing samples and merch and building relationships, but many pubs are beholden to contracts with large distributors that also regulate how much beer they can buy from outside parties.
“We’ve had to work actively on feeling like we are on the same team, [while still] having a sense of ownership. None of us were really interested in an end game where we got rich as much as exploring what we could do with the beer and seeing where it took us.”
— Chad Paton, Molecule BrewingAs a result, name recognition is crucial, so Molecule’s brewers retain their individual labels and reputations while operating as a single entity. The owners are “brand managers,” getting final say over their styles, but everyone participates in each brew, and can suggest ideas and ingredients for any beer. Each individual beer is presented as a brewery’s own, a small Molecule logo on the back the only evidence of its collective conception.
They also need to be the best to compete where playing fields are forcibly leveled. “We don’t have the muscle to make cheap beer, so the only tool we have is quality,” Paton says. “We have to be willing to innovate.” As a result, Molecule has no core range, and the brewers rarely make the same beer twice.
Small, one-off batches are expensive, but sharing knowledge from across their specialties provides a competitive advantage. “Whatever experience we gain making an Imperial Porter, we can apply to making a really good Sour Ale. And whatever experience we’ve got from using hops, we can use when we put fruit in the tank,” says Paton, adding that “it gives us a fertile type of experimental culture.”
This also imbues them with a sense of responsibility: What’s good for the atom is not only good for the molecule, but the entire organism. “It’s quite a big demand on the customer to pay a premium price for something they’ve never had before,” Paton says. “That places even more of a burden on us to keep the quality extremely high—so we have the permission to do all that experimentation.”
With power in numbers, their quietly collaborative beers have been well-received; they began expanding to export markets in 2018, and in 2020, partnered with U.K. distributor Distant Lands to spread visibility outside of Sweden.
In the Molecule model, everyone has a stake, yet nobody fully owns anything. Each brand manager’s veto power keeps egos in check, as does variable demand from can sales, festivals, and potential collaborators who only want to work with one of the breweries. Brewing Molecule’s beers collaboratively help circumvent the potential limitation of each brand sticking to one style, Paton says, while maintaining “the motivation and innovation that you have for your own personal creation.”
This can be a balancing act—“We’ve had to work actively on feeling like we are on the same team, [while still] having a sense of ownership,” Paton notes—but they’re bound by shared philosophy. “None of us were really interested in an end game where we got rich as much as exploring what we could do with the beer and seeing where it took us.”
In the end, it comes down to the people, their ethics, what doors they open, and which they close behind them.
“Capitalism in excess is the status quo, so we all tend to strive for that,” Cox says. “What I’ve seen again and again, from people who are running businesses and doing it ethically, is that [they’re] intentionally collaborative.”
Maybe it’s not that craft beer has been doing it wrong, but that brewers, owners, and workers are still figuring out how to do it right. Systems are corruptible. You can take ownership and spread it among dozens of participants, like in a co-op, only to have its values diluted. You can pool resources under one roof, like in an incubator, only to have it turn into the same kind of arbitrary meritocracy that favors the status quo. You can take away the brewery itself, brewing in systems of interreliance like the nomads, only to see it calcify into the same pattern of charisma and impropriety.
Still, each reimagining contributes to a morphic resonance that opens up beer to ideas and voices subsumed in the traditional model. “Since I started, I’ve seen more and more Black and Brown people and women not just drinking craft beer, but actually interested in [working in] the industry,” says Brake. “I see a definite change, so I hope I can help.”
It’s not about simply making room for new voices, but about building real roads to entry. The change starts with our cultural mythology and collective values: telling stories not just about the singular, but the collective; celebrating that which is greater in sum; and ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to share power, however judiciously they wield it.
“Inclusion is dope,” Brake says, “but I want to see more ownership.”
Words by Holly Regan and Jerard Fagerberg
Illustrations by David Alvarado