ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2016)

The (Beer) Consumer Society: Craft Beer Culture Through a Baudrillardian Lens

Tyler Rollins
Doctoral Candidate, Media Studies, University of Colorado, USA

I. Introduction
This paper works to apply some of Baudrillard’s earliest theories and perspectives to the contemporary cultural phenomenon of craft beer. By engaging with Baudrillard through application it becomes possible to see the importance of his early works and their continued relevance today, especially when used to analyze popular and consumer culture. Finally, this paper will serve as a good introduction to Baudrillard for the uninitiated. Beginning his career in the 1950s as a French to German translator, Baudrillard soon became a prolific theorist and philosopher, both embraced and lauded by Western academics. Writing his first major theoretical work in 1968 (Baudrillard 1996) Baudrillard wrote well over 40 additional books during his career, with his last book written in 2008 and translated to English in 2010 (Baudrillard 2010). He enjoyed success in popular culture with books such as Simulacra and Simulation (Baudrillard 1994) and its appearance in the blockbuster movie The Matrix (1994). Though many of his later works can be characterized as critical and resistant to Marxism, particularly Symbolic Exchange and Death (Baudrillard 1993a)and The Mirror of Production (Baudrillard 1975), which Mike Gane characterizes as “a violent reaction to Marxism,” (Baudrillard 1993b:ix) his earlier works clearly show the important influence that Marx had on his theoretical position. In these early pieces it is readily apparent that Baudrillard places importance on the proletarian position (Baudrillard 1993b:ix), however, his feeling that “Marx was not sufficiently radical in his analysis” is by no means obfuscated.

There is no doubt that Baudrillard is a difficult author to comprehend, warranting slow and concerted reading. Throughout his career he, much like Sartre and others, developed ideas and concepts that came to constitute a unique language through the creation of new definitions and understandings of commonly used words. These redefinitions are in part what makes Baudrillard’s work so difficult to comprehend for the uninitiated. In an attempt to ease this Baudrillard published Passwords (Baudrillard 2003), a guidebook to some of his key ideas such as object, value, and symbolic exchange, and Richard G. Smith edited The Baudrillard Dictionary (Smith 2010), an A to Z dictionary of Baudrillard’s most important concepts and terminology. Although these books help readers to understand Baudrillard’s writing, it is difficult to fully grasp his theoretical position at any particular point in his career without being familiar with all of his works up to that moment.

To take an essay or a book chapter out of his oeuvre and attempt to understand it without context is almost certainly doomed for failure. Unfortunately, however, this exact scenario seems to be endemic to many of his critics. It is this scenario that is likely the cause of many misunderstandings and mischaracterizations, such as mislabeling him the “high priest of postmodernity,” which he vehemently denied. Without working knowledge of his positions, it would be easy to miss the fact that not only does Baudrillard not believe himself to be a postmodernist, but that there are also indications he does not necessarily believe postmodernism itself to be a useful term:

Everything that has been said about postmodernism was said even before the term existed… To want to disassociate oneself from it, to say that I am not a postmodernist, is still to say too much because it is a contradictory opinion and therefore defensive, and I don’t want to go along that road either… Even if I prove that I am not a postmodernist, it won’t change anything. People will put that label on you. Once they have done that it sticks. There are ways of getting rid of a problem. People just label it and in my opinion this is not really a process of … how shall I say … it’s not really a fraud … let’s not exaggerate, but there is something that is not very clear in all this. There are perhaps areas in which the term ‘postmodernism’ may mean something to the extent that people claim to belong to this, perhaps in architecture. But as soon as it is clear that the term adds nothing new it is best to let go of it (Baudrillard, 1993b:22).

Given the general difficulty and misunderstandings of Baudrillard’s work, this paper aims to explicate some of his earliest ideas. This could be done in a number of ways, perhaps one of the most difficult to construct, yet easiest to understand, is by way of application. To that end, this paper will examine contemporary craft beer culture through a Baudrillardian lens in hopes that his concepts and position will become convincing. Through an examination of craft beer culture it will be possible to apply and explain a number of key concepts such as: the appearance of authenticity; the social integration function of consumption; consumption; and the object, among others. In order to achieve this lofty goal efficiently, there will be a number of assumptions and generalizations that must take place. To speak on craft beer culture necessarily means that nuanced differences and characteristics will be overlooked, as it would be nearly impossible to account for these in anything less than a book. This is not an uncommon shortcoming in social theory, especially when moving away from the microsociological toward meso- and macro-level analysis.

II. Foundation and Trajectory
In The System of Objects (Baudrillard 1996)Baudrillard set out to investigate how people experience objects, the non-functional needs those objects satisfy, and the cultural system that underpins those objects. His aim was not to understand how objects are defined by their functions, rather he was interested in “the processes whereby people relate to them and with the systems of human behavior and relationships that result therefrom… This ‘spoken’ system of objects” (Baudrillard 1996:2). For Baudrillard the technical function of an object is essential. That is, the technical function the object serves has no substitutes. Take for example a riding lawnmower – it serves a very specific technical or technological function for which there are few substitutes – few other objects cut grass in a similar way.

Against the essentiality of the technological sphere is the sociological sphere of needs and practices, which is inessential. In this sphere it is possible to understand “objects by virtue of their being produced and consumed, possessed and personalized” (Baudrillard 1996:3). Here the lawnmower takes on a different meaning – no longer is the lawnmower solely used for cutting grass (its technical function) but in the sociological sphere it may be used to signify status to one’s neighbors, for example. Further, in the technological sphere objects can be fundamentally and objectively improved (e.g., more powerful engine, increased efficiency, increased durability, etc.) as they are part of a coherent system. Through this coherence meanings can emerge (more powerful engine) that are independent of the user who will operate the object; development in the technological sphere follows a pure course and can be objectively determined and judged.

Baudrillard saw everyday objects as always in the process of moving away from the technical system toward the cultural system, where their secondary meanings are developed. In the cultural system meanings are derived not from an external reality but through reference to other objects within the system. Therefore to account for the system of objects, “structural technological analysis is clearly inadequate” (Baudrillard 1996:5). It is this notion that sets the foundation for much of Baudrillard’s early work on understanding the outcome of the interplay between objects and culture. Further, it is with this in mind that the analysis of craft beer culture can begin.

III. Authenticity and Origin. Or, Understanding the India Pale Ale
One very Baudrillardian way to examine the craft beer culture is to ask: Why do people care about craft beer? According to market researchers, it is because consumers increasingly demand authenticity (see Kovács et. al., 2013: 458-478). According to the website “created on behalf of U.S. craft brewers,” “passion, authenticity, excitement, creativity, camaraderie and joy” ( About, 2015) are important aspects of the craft beer community. Baudrillard, then, in his fairly hyperbolic tradition, might conclude that the desire for authenticity is indicative of the lack of authenticity in contemporary American culture. That is, when Americans consume ‘authentic’ beer that are actually evoking something that no longer exists; they are “consuming in ritual form something which… has been forcibly reactualized as legend” (Baudrillard 2003:99).

For most people familiar with the craft beer industry, it comes as no surprise that India Pale Ales account for over 20% of all craft beer sold in the U.S. (The Year in Beer, 2014). Why are so many people drawn to IPAs when there exist dozens of other styles of beer? The case of the IPA is interesting when viewed through the Baudrillardian lens for many reasons. However, understanding the much contested history of the IPA is needed before examining its mass consumption.

There are two tales usually used to explain the origin of the IPA. The first, briefly, is that when British forces were occupying India in the 1800s they wanted beer that tasted fresh. However the long, multi-month trip by boat with little temperature control and the sloshing of the beer in barrels, which lead to oxidation, rendered the beer stale by the time it finally arrived. To combat this, brewers in England added increased amounts of hops to the beer – given that the flavor and potency of hops degrades with time, the story goes (and logic follows) that the increased hops gave the beer a ‘fresher’ taste when it arrived. A second variation suggests that because the beer being sent to India during occupation would continually spoil (that is, turn sour from bacteria) increased hop quantities were used because of the natural anti-microbial properties present in hops, thus preventing spoilage of the beer. There is no definitive source that proves which story, if either, is accurate, but the details and accuracy of the origin story is of little importance here. What is important is the fact that there is an “origin” and a history.

Like the antique in Baudrillard’s analysis, the IPA has a particular position in craft brew culture. Though there may have been a unique technological function of the IPA in the 1800s that function no longer exists, if it ever did. With advances in storage, brewing, and transportation, all of the ailments the high hop quantity supposedly relieved are no longer problematic. In other words, the essential function of the IPA is now the same as the essential function of any other beer. Therefore, technologically, the IPA is equivalent to the stout, which is equivalent to the pilsner. What does vary between these beers is their secondary function, or their sign value. The IPA appears not on par with the other beers and contains within itself an authentic presence, enjoying special standing. Though the IPA no longer serves a purpose on the technological level, it serves a purpose on the cultural level: it carries with it a sign value of authenticity that no other beer enjoys to the same degree – true beer drinkers no longer drink Budweiser, they now drink IPAs. It is in this way that the IPA resembles the Baudrillardian antique. Perhaps the fascination with IPAs comes, like the fascination for hand-made products and antiques, from “anteriority of their forms or their manufacture, and from the allusion they contain to an earlier world” (Baudrillard 1996:79). For Baudrillard:

The antique is always… the immemorialization, in the concrete form of an object, of a former being… This characteristic of antiques is, of course, precisely what is lacking in functional objects, which exist only in the present, in the indicative or in the practical imperative, which exhaust their possibilities in use, never having occurred in a former time and which, though they can in varying degrees support the spatial environment, cannot support the temporal one. The functional object is efficient; the mythological object is fully realized.”
(Baudrillard, 1996:79).

A parallel can be drawn here between the antique and the IPA. Objects that present themselves as a myth of origins have special significance for Baudrillard. Like the antique, the IPA has a mythology that is characterized by the nostalgia for origins and the obsession with authenticity. If the craft beer drinker believes in either origin story that suggests increased hop quantity (either during brewing or during post-fermentation, also known as dry-hopping) are the hallmarks of the IPA, then the IPA must elicit in the drinker a desire for hoppier beers. In other words, to maintain its special standing the IPA has a mythology that must be acknowledged. Part of that mythology is the obsession with authenticity and, in the case of the IPA, authenticity is synonymous with hoppiness. The obsession with authenticity also explains why IPA drinkers often appear physically pained when other craft beer drinkers either do not know the origin story or suggest the origin story may be false. Indeed, if the origin story is contradicted then the authenticity of the IPA is negated and in turn, the authenticity of the IPA drinker in the craft beer community is negated (Imagine the discomfort if it came out that the major enemy of craft beer, Anheuser-Busch, invented the IPA…the very foundation of authenticity within craft beer culture would be shaken).

Though IPAs are brewed with the most advanced equipment, in the most sterile facilities, they still somehow maintain their authenticity. How could this be, when the origin story tells of the poor conditions IPAs were subjected to? Baudrillard would say, somewhat counterintuitively that authenticity is in fact the quest for an alibi (“Being elsewhere”, see The System of Objects, 82). What this means is that an object does not need to be fully traditional to be authentic. In fact, keeping only the smallest tradition alive is enough to have the symbolic power to reinvest the object with value. In the case of the IPA the tradition of heavy-handed hopping is enough to maintain authenticity, for the sake of sign value, within the craft beer culture – even though contemporary brewing, fermentation, and storage is very different now than it was in the 1800s.

Like the architect who chooses to build a new home rather than restore the old building that once stood in its place, meanwhile opting to keep some of the original masonry and beams of the original structure for incorporation into the new, the craft beer drinker chooses to drink the well refined IPA that was brewed with purified water and precisely malted barley, in stainless steel or copper vessels that are free of microbes, retaining only the tradition of heavy hopping. In both acts, the keeping of the beam and the heavy-handed hopping, the architect and the craft beer drinker ignore the fact that they experience such refinement as inauthentic and that the pureness of their respective objects does not satisfy the deepest hopes for authenticity; an authenticity which is but a fantasy “always located somewhere short of reality” (Baudrillard 1996:84).

Baudrillard wrote about antiques as a general type of object, rather than looking to specific objects within that category. His hesitancy is likely the result of understanding that in different cultures different objects are understood as antiques. Indeed it is more than just age that constitutes such an object. For Baudrillard, it is myth, origin, and authenticity, as discussed above, as well as a lack of functionality. He suggests that the “functional object is devoid of meaning” (Baudrillard 1996:85). These types of objects are “rich in functionality but impoverished in meaning, their frame of reference is the present moment, and their possibilities do not extend beyond everyday life” (Baudrillard 1996:85). This type of object is the yellow number two pencil, the lawnmower, the non-IPA. These objects have a purpose to serve and they serve it well. On the other hand, there is the mythological object, which has “minimal function and maximal meaning… On the plane of direct experience, however the antithetical traits of the mythological and the functional coexist in complementary fashion within the one system” (Baudrillard 1996:86). For Baudrillard, “whatever it is that man lacks is invested in the object” (Baudrillard 1996:88). That is, under capitalism man lacks a truly authentic existence as a result of mass produced consumables.

In the case of beer consumption, it appears there is a lack of authenticity due to the mass production of low-cost American lagers such as Budweiser. The same could be said for numerous other foodstuffs: the rise of artisanal chocolates as a result of mass produced, low quality chocolates from Hershey; the increase in available fine cheeses as a reaction to the low quality of Kraft brand cheese; the rise of artisanal potato chips and ice cream, craft soda, high-end juice, rustic breads, and small batch spirits as a reaction to the major producers in each respective market. What these all have in common is an appeal to authenticity – something that consumers are very interested in. For the craft beer drinker, there is a fetishization of origin and authenticity by means of the IPA. This is no different than in the case of antiques, where “every antique is beautiful merely because it has survived and thus become the sign of an earlier life” (Baudrillard 1996:88). There exists a sort of romantic nostalgia that derives from the origination story.

Presumably there are many ways to signify social status if all objects can be understood as having a secondary value, a sign value, in addition to their functional value. Why, then, in craft beer culture is status derived from the IPA? Why in literary circles is it derived from first editions? In blues music culture from recordings of musicians from the very early 20th century? Baudrillard explains this phenomenon by suggesting that in late capitalism the traditional indicators of status, such as bloodline, birthright, and titles of nobility, have largely lost their importance. Therefore the only remaining way to signify status, or transcendence, is through material signs. The past is now in the service of consumption. For Baudrillard, “it is a cultural irony – but an economic fact – that this thirst for authenticity can now be slaked only by forgeries” (Baudrillard 1996:89).

IV. Personalization, Consumption, Integration
That status is derived from the consumption of the IPA within craft beer culture does not explain the large variation and proliferation of IPAs. Indeed, should not one IPA, nationally distributed, be sufficient to signify status within the culture? If people no longer derive status through traditional indicators, but through material signs, it follows for Baudrillard that the object is used to differentiate individuals. It is a class logic that forces salvation by objects (Baudrillard 2003:60). Without the ability to differentiate by income in the lower and middle classes, individuals must prove themselves through objects and consumption.

Luckily, capitalism provides the illusion of choice, and choice is understood as freedom. This is the foundation of personalization and the attempt to create individuality through consumption. However, the freedom of choice is, in this case, not a freedom at all, but rather an imposition that cannot be resisted. The freedom to choose, in effect, forces us to participate in the cultural system. However, “the consumer does not experience this as being forced to be different” (Baudrillard 2003:61). To choose a particular IPA is indeed a personalizing choice, but the important result is that it assigns the chooser a place in the cultural order. This allows for more efficient status discrimination vis-à-vis the code (Baudrillard 1981:68; Smith 2010:34). The code is an important concept for understanding Baudrillard’s position. It forces individuals to register themselves on the scale of status. While the code does encompass consumption, it also includes the construction of knowledge and information through the conversion of thought into coded information flows (see Smith 2010:34). That is, the code simulates difference, allows us to perceive the sign value of objects, and can allow skilled readers and users to manipulate social signifiers.

The social logic of consumption is essentially the manipulation of social signifiers. Instead of understanding consumption as based on satisfaction, Baudrillard suggests that the logic of consumption is based on the production and consumption of social signifiers. This process can be understood from two basic angles:

  • As a process of signification and communication, based on a code into which consumption practices fit and from which they derive their meaning. Consumption here is a system of exchange and the equivalent of a language.
  • As a process of classification and social differentiation in which sign/objects are ordered not now merely as significant differences in a code but as status values in a hierarchy. Here consumption can be submitted to a strategic analysis which determines its specific importance in the distribution of status value (overlapping with other social signifiers: knowledge, power, culture, etc.) (Baudrillard, 2003:60).

What this means is that Baudrillardian consumption differs from Marxian consumption.1 In Baudrillardian consumption “you never consume the object in itself (in its use-value); you are always manipulating objects (in the broadest sense) as signs” (Baudrillard 2003:61). It is through manipulating objects as signs that you can either affiliate with your group as your ideal reference group, or mark yourself off from your group by referencing a group with higher status than your own. You can personalize your consumption choices, thereby manipulating objects and affiliating yourself with a particular social status or group.

Personalization is therefore the basic ideological concept of society as well as its integration function. Through the creation of inessential differences – differences that stay within the field of dispersal – the industrial object that is serially produced appears as though it is a model object and therefore becomes more desirable. Indeed, the unrestricted production of inessential differences is necessary to promote consumption in late capitalism. This logic stands for nearly all goods produced today, including craft beer. If consumption were based on actual satiation of desire or in terms of use-value, rather than manipulation of signs, there would quickly come a point where consumption ceased. However, because it is based on the manipulation of signs, there is no physical constraint that would prohibit it, thus there is no natural end. Instead there is an acceleration of the rate of consumption which can be explained only if “we radically abandon the individual logic of satisfaction and accord the social logic of differentiation the decisive importance it deserves” (Baudrillard 2003:61).

Unfortunately it is no longer possible to truly differentiate yourself in craft beer culture. To differentiate yourself within the culture is to become labeled – an IPA drinker, a stout drinker, a Belgian drinker, even being a Budweiser drinker cannot truly differentiate you within the culture. Once this is understood, we see that consumption choices in craft beer culture do not delineate differences but instead mark the drinker’s conformity to the code and his social integration into the culture. This is not a result of hand-crafted artisanship as most in the craft beer culture would hope. Instead it is a result of industrial production and concentration, which abolishes the real differences between people, ushering in the “reign of differentiation” (Baudrillard 2003:89). For Baudrillard, “all men are equal before objects as use-value, but they are by no means equal before objects as signs and differences which are profoundly hierarchical” (Baudrillard 2003:90). Further one’s relation to oneself becomes a consumed relation. That is, the craft beer drinker is sold to the craft beer drinker by the very industry that those beer drinkers believe hold the key to their individuality. The IPA drinker consumes herself because her relation to herself is objectivized, fuelled by signs that constitute the IPA drinker model. It is that model that the IPA drinker consumes when they personalize themselves with their beer choice.

It is no wonder, then, that we have witnessed such a proliferation of the beer that commands the most status in the craft beer culture. If the system forces us to differentiate and personalize, it makes sense that we would try to differentiate upwards – that is, attempt to affiliate with social groups of a higher status than our own. The way to do that is through the manipulations of signs, and it just so happens that the IPA is the best object for such manipulation. The system never operates in terms of real differences between individuals; it is grounded in the elimination of specific qualities and real differences, and substitutes the differential form which can be industrialized and commercialized as a distinguishing sign (Baudrillard 2003:93). This is perhaps the worst trick played on the IPA drinker: the object through which they work so hard to differentiate themselves, the object that holds a privileged status within the culture, the object that is authentic, is the object predetermined to be mass produced due to its sign value and will eventually become so ubiquitous that it loses its privilege. The IPA drinker is consumes the model of the IPA drinker, becoming that which the culture and industry have predetermined she will become.

V. Craft Beer Post-IPA
Allowing the logic to play out as suggested above would mean that with the IPA’s fall from grace an opportunity will open up for a new beer to become the dominant sign object for the culture. Using the ideas discussed, it is possible to make a few informed predictions about what the coming years have in store for craft beer. Given the importance placed on origin and authenticity in the culture, it stands that the next dominant beer will be one with traceable origins and authentic and unique procedures that can carry over into the new age of brewing – with the IPA, this was the story of transporting the beer from England to India, and the importance placed on hops. Perhaps, then, the next beer to rise to a dominant position (a sign object that differentiates ‘true’ craft beer drinkers from the layman) will be the sour beer. Where IPAs were generally judged to be authentic by the quantity or intensity of hops used (measure in IBUs or international bittering units), sour beers will be judged by their pH, with lower numbers corresponding to more sour beers. The variations will be enough to allow for the illusion of differentiation just as with the IPA. That the sour beer has long been a traditional, even ancient, style of beer will fulfill the origin requirement; that bacteria was used for souring then and now will be the piece that is held onto in order to maintain authenticity.

Following the sour beer will come the Russian imperial stout. This beer was originally brewed in England for the Imperial Czarist court of Russia in the late 1700s – a fine origin story. The style traditionally had very high alcohol by volume so that it could withstand the harsh Russian winter – the high alcohol was to prevent freezing. The tradition of high alcohol will carry over to contemporary brewing and maintain authenticity. Instead of IBU or pH being the key criteria for determining the worthiness of the beer, the Russian imperial stout will likely be judged by its percent of alcohol by volume. Finally, the craft beer culture will see a rise in the status of traditional German lagers. The story of the Reinheitsgebot, or the German purity law, is the origin story for the lager. Interestingly the Reinheitsgebot will also be what the lager uses to maintain its authenticity in the way the architect’s house held on to the beams, the IPA held on to hops, the sour will hang on to bacteria, and the Russian imperial stout will hang on to alcohol by volume.

Tyler Rollins is a PhD candidate in Media Studies at University of Colorado, Boulder. His dissertation is an historical examination of domestic surveillance programs carried out by the U.S. government during the mid-20th century (PhD expected May 2016). Though Tyler’s dissertation research focuses on the intersection of media, law, and society, he also specializes in communication history, alternative media, social movements, and research methods.


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1. In Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes that “In the process of production members of society appropriate (produce, fashion) natural products in accordance with human requirements; distribution determines the share the individual receives of these products; exchange supplies him with the particular products into which he wants to convert the portion accorded to him as a result of distribution; finally, in consumption the products become objects of use, i.e. they are appropriated by individuals. Production creates articles corresponding to requirements; distribution allocates them according to social laws; exchange in its turn distributes the goods, which have already been allocated, in conformity with individual needs; finally, in consumption the product leaves this social movement, it becomes the direct object and servant of an individual need, which its use satisfies.