Under the influence: Beer and political donations

“Republicans buy sneakers too.” ~ Michael Jordan


Should we refuse to buy beer from breweries whose politics don’t seem to align with our own?

That’s the question that was raised on twitter over the weekend when a handful of “beer personalities” stumbled upon the fact that certain Ontario-based breweries had donated to the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. At a time when Doug Ford is helming this party and appears to be taking an axe to all manner of social service, educational, and healthcare funding, the perceived association of breweries with the PC party was not something to which the twitterati took kindly. Tweets flew mentioning the breweries by name, demanding an explanation for these donations, and even calling for boycotts of the offending companies.

As it turns out, the outrage-machine that has become twitter appears to have failed to vet their sources and, the database used to induce their rage (The National Post’s Follow The Money campaign donation database) actually only lists data up to 2017—meaning none of the donations discovered by angry tweeters actually even went to Doug Ford’s current iteration of the PC party. It’s not clear to me if this means the boycott is still on or if the torches and pitchforks have gone back into the rhetorical shed for now, but the skirmish got me thinking: Why are we so concerned about the political affiliations of brewery owners, especially when we typically don’t seem to be that concerned with the makers of other commodities?

On twitter, I dared to venture a response that political donations from breweries weren’t a new phenomenon and that beer companies very often donate to political parties for strategic business reasons. I was, perhaps predictably, quickly met with a straw-man argument regarding a hypothetical neo-Nazi brewery and, for daring to suggest not all breweries share a collective political agenda, it was implied that I’d probably personally support said fictional Nazi brewery if only they made good beer. Good ol’ twitter. Perhaps we might call this hypothetical beer Godwin’s Law Barley Wine?

And sure, while the inevitable fallout of mixing politics and beer has rightfully come under increased focus in a post-Donald Trump world, this isn’t a new phenomenon — even here in Canada. Today is, by coincidence, the four year anniversary of the day I shared the news on facebook that Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewery had played host to a Stephen Harper campaign stop as he was trying to win re-election in 2015. I made a joke on facebook that Amsterdam beer might “taste a little more evil” for a while (disclosure, in case it wasn’t clear: My personal politics skew left. My wife once worked for a Liberal MPP, I have volunteered for the Ontario Liberal party, and my lawn featured a large sign in support of my local Liberal candidate during the last provincial election), but my comment was decidedly tongue-in-cheek: Amsterdam had allowed their local Conservative Party MP to book their space for a campaign event and, when it turned out that Harper wanted to make the event into a stop for his leadership campaign, Amsterdam had allowed the event to happen. I was never a fan of Stephen Harper, but I know Amsterdam previously received help from the MP in question and, it seemed to me that, if the Prime Minister of Canada wants to patronize your business for a publicized event, it makes sense to let him –regardless of politics. And yet, the comments that followed that post four years ago were much the same as the shock and outrage that surfaced on twitter this weekend at the idea that a brewery *gasp* might not have left-leaning political views (memorably one commenter doubted that Harper had ever even had a beer before, hilariously echoing Homer Simpson’s assessment of Nixon)

Then, as now, I was a little bemused at not only the notion that it is impossible that a brewery, or rather its ownership, could ever be remotely right-leaning, but also that it is shocking that a brewery might see some advantage to having a favourable relationship with their local politicians — regardless of party affiliation.

There does seem to be something off-putting to beer drinkers about knowing our favourite brewery might not align with our politics. Like no other industry, we seem to make assumptions about the people who make our beer. I don’t often see equal outrage on social media related to the politics of the people who make our clothes, our electronics, or even our food. Admittedly, my activity on social media is mostly related to beer, but beer seems to hold a special, idealized place in our collective social-justice-warrior hearts. Maybe it is because the act of enjoying a beer seems so firmly rooted in the concept of a shared experience. Anyone who has been pulled in by the vaguely romantic notion of craft beer — local artisans making quality products in our backyard, the thriving community hub where we drink beer and bring our babies and our running clubs and our yoga mats on Saturdays— recognizes that a lot of the fun and draw of the industry is really about socializing and connecting with like-minded people. I think fondly about my local brewery and the people there. I don’t get the same warm and fuzzy feeling about the brand on the label of my jeans.

And perhaps that’s why the collective twitteratti took it so hard this weekend to learn of donations, both real and imagined, of some Ontario breweries to the province’s right wing party.

Now, before I go on, it is probably worth noting that, yes, actually, craft beer drinkers do seem to skew liberal. In a survey from November 2018, DataQuencher polled 1,500 Americans on political affiliation and drinking habits. The results showed what those who identify as conservative actually do drink more macro beer than those who identify as liberal. 81% of conservatives buy macro and 65% of liberals do. Similarly, 59% of liberals said they buy craft beer and only 39% of conservatives said they do.

Also, I will admit that, as a rule, it’s not usually a good idea to publicly align your business with any one political party or figure, especially when the political figure is an exceptionally polarizing one like Donald Trump or Doug Ford. Myriad US breweries have faced a serious backlash for instances where owners have spoken out in favour of The Donald and, here at home, Barley Days Brewery in Picton faced understandable wrath when they jumped on the ridiculous Doug Ford bandwagon to champion his absurd “buck-a-beer” shenanigans.

Still, forgetting the demographics of the typical craft beer drinker, and removing the outliers like Ford and Trump (remember: There is still no available evidence that any Ontario brewery has donated to Ford and, regardless of what you think of Canada’s political landscape, I think we can all agree that it’s not quite so bad as our federal government caging refugees, posing for thumbs-up photos with babies orphaned by mass shootings, or actively stoking white supremacist support), it’s a little odd to me that we take umbrage at beer companies simply working with or donating to politicians, regardless of how anyone feels about the party. Because I’d suggest that donation to a political party is quite a different thing than openly championing said party’s policies and agreeing whole-hog with their platform. And therein lies the unfortunate reality of both business and politics that is apparently lost on those idealistic tweeters: donations aren’t necessarily endorsements, and are instead often simply efforts to gain access.

Yes, donations, like the real and imagined ones folks recently got riled about, get businesses a foot in the door with decision-makers and, frankly, when 2018 donations are made public, you probably will see that some companies you like have in fact donated to Doug Ford’s party — and whatever other party might have some sway and will listen to them. When the government is proposing sweeping reform to retail alcohol policy, for example, having donated recently can mean a brewery owner gets a seat at the table when the conversation about those changes starts happening – or they can have a politician’s ear when they need assistance with their business. Consider a hypothetical: two breweries call on their local politician for help with a zoning issue that is holding up expansions of both of their respective breweries. One of those breweries donated to that politician’s recent election efforts and one did not. Which brewery do you think that politician’s staffer will prioritize when he or she is booking meetings?

Yes, it’s all a little greasy-sounding and it is influence peddling and it lends itself to an argument in favour of election donation reforms—and I’m here for that conversation—but for now, unfortunately, this is simply how things work. This is why you’ll find that most medium to large businesses make strategic donations, often to to every major party, and they will typically follow a pattern: two matching donations to the major parties trailing in the polls and a larger donation to the party that is more likely to actually win the upcoming election.

The other option would be to stay neutral—not attempt to peddle influence and simply trust that the people who are at the table will represent your interests. And while that’s perhaps an admirable notion, it’s short-sighted and, this year if you’re a brewer it means, for example, you’re gambling the future of your industry and the success of your business on the hopes that logical, progressive, and strategic ideas will simply be organically put forward by the party of Doug Ford…

Good luck with that.

The truth then is that it really shouldn’t be shocking that craft breweries have donated to politicians across all party lines. It would, to me, be shocking and short sighted if they didn’t. A savvy business owner should recognize the importance of being at the table when decisions are made that affect his or her business and the best way for a brewery to do that in Ontario is with donations (Indeed, the lack of an alternative method in the form of cohesive lobbying efforts is probably one of my biggest beefs with the brewing industry in this province and is a conversation for a dozen more blog posts). Because don’t forget: Breweries are businesses. As much as we love all these thriving community hubs where we go to drink, they ultimately exist for the purpose of selling beer and, often, in order to continue to sell that beer as profitably and effectively as possible, there breweries’ owners need occasional access to politicians—even the ones with which you might not agree.

10 thoughts on “Under the influence: Beer and political donations

  1. I happily many of my purchasing decisions, including but certainly not exclusive to beer, based on political decisions. It is one small avenue that I have to influence (hopefully) the behemoth corporate/capitalist system. There are dozens of good coffee roasters, why frequent the one that supports an abusive man? There are many brands of hummus, why support the one that operates in contravention to international law? There are dozens of good, local breweries, why support the one that actively financially supports a government that is harming so many for the benefit of a few?

    I think we should all be informed, conscientious purchasers as much as we can, while also recognizing there’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ or unentangled ethical position when it comes to how we purchase and consume. And all of this nuance and thoughtfulness can exist, opposite of what the twitter machine leads us to believe.

  2. Money rules the world, plain and simple. If you give it to someone, or a business, you give them power. It DOES matter.

    Sure, a business or a celebrity can make a political stance and have an opinion about absolutely anything, and I will support their right to chose, but I don’t have to support their choice.

    You can’t do shit without money. Spend wisely.

  3. There is so much nuance missing from the comments on this. In particular, let me point to a circumstance under which a major Ontario brewer might (did) “donate” to a conservative campaign. Imagine you’re a brewery owner in a conservative region. And imagine your elected official arrives and invites you to sit at their table at a political event. This will be a wise business decision for you, you’ll get to network with dozens of local business people and also discuss the various laws impacting your business with the people who can actually help you change them. So you agree to go. You buy a seat at that table. That seat shows up as a donation to that party. You also to to events with the competing parties and talk to their networks too. Now people on Twitter think you’re garbage and stop supporting your business because you went to a political event for which you had to buy tickets? C’mon. That’s just demonstrating how little awareness people have about how making change in systems works. To make real change you get to know and lobby both sides of an issue and that might mean buying tickets to both events. Grow up. This isn’t a school yard where you’re in one click or an other. This is business. Where you’re in the click that helps you advance the needs of your industry and business no matter what it takes. Welcome to a capitalist society.

    1. You are correct, that as a business you can choose which business practices you choose to engage in (assuming they are legal, etc). You, as a business, might decide that to push your brewery’s agenda you will buy this said table for a chance to engage with this said politician. That is your choice, and one you may freely make.

      On the other end of the spectrum, I also have the free choice as a consumer to decide whether or not I want to support a business that engages in these said business practices. I might decide that they are of no consequence to me or that I understand the motivation behind the practices. Or, I might decide that I do not support these practices and will spend my money supporting another business.

      There is a reason that information such as political donations should be made public, so that we as the consumer might make an informed decision. As with other issues in craft brewing that you can read about on this blog (like buying taps, who is behind these ‘faux’ craft breweries, etc), it’s important that consumers have all the information, so that we can then decide if we want to support or not with our money. This feels very similar to the above issues in this regard.

      It’s not about cliques or mean girls on the playground who don’t want to be your friend anymore, but more so about the choices available to to us and the consequences that particular choices might have. We as consumers have the decision to buy your product or not, and we may base that decision on your business practices: welcome to a capitalist society.

  4. Drink the beer you like. No one gives a fuck what you think about politics. You are a thirsty shaved monkey. Nothing more.

    1. I rather think it’s an appreciation for things like a well-made beverage and a well governed society that separate us from the monkeys (shaved or otherwise). We are capable of so much more.

  5. This is a tremendous piece. Well written, well researched, all your angles covered. I greatly enjoyed it, and its certainly opened my eyes up to things.

    I also maintain a beer blog, you can check mine out at https://thebeerthrillers.home.blog/

    Would be great to collaborate sometime on an article, or do guest writing for each other. Let me know, reach out to me.

    -B. Kline
    –The Beer Thrillers

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