The Homebrewing Mayor, how politics and beer are alike
A look at how beer, community and commerce intersect
Thirty years ago Paul Dyster was sent to Geneva, Switzerland on a work trip and had a larger per diem food allowance than he had time to spend. This was the perfect recipe for a liquid education. His beer reference point up until that moment was the same as most Americans in the 1980s. To him, beers were practically indistinguishable from each other, and their “light” formats were even harder to differentiate. In Geneva, his eyes were awakened to the glory of beer that truly had individual and complex flavors.
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When he returned to the states, Dyster started looking for a similar drinking experience but found the same old stuff. Instead of languishing in boring beer land, he embarked on a home brewing journey that would define a part of who he is today, the home brewing mayor.
“I started almost on a dare,” he says. “I ordered a home brewing kit out of the back of some magazine, and that’s how it all started. Back then, the most difficult thing was just getting somebody to drink your beer. Everyone assumed that it had to come from a big brewery or it would make you sick.”
Dyster’s passion grew into a career. First, he invested in his brother and sister-in-law’s home brew supply business, and then later took the business over. Eventually, he passed off the responsibility of running the business to his wife as his political career took off. In 2008, after serving in a couple different political positions, he was elected mayor of Niagara Falls, N.Y., leading its 50,000 residents and overseeing one very big waterfall. Dyster says that home brewing and politics are not that unusual of a combination.
“People think about the home brew business as being about products. But it really was about relationships,” Dyster says. “And I think there is a parallel with politics at the local level. You have to learn to appreciate someone from their own perspective. Everyone is unique, with their own way of looking at the world, just like someone who’s learning a craft.”
Dyster says you can learn a lot about somebody by working through the sometimes nerve-wracking process of becoming a home brewer.
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Beer, Commerce and Community
Like Dyster, Greg Mitchell is passionate about how beer, commerce and community work together. As the Department Director of Portland Maine’s Economic Development Department, he helps attract businesses to the area. He says, “[The industry] ties really nicely to our foodie culture, and resonates with our people who are after the farm-to-table, natural organic experience. Those things also tie it to Maine’s brand, and Portland specifically.”
For Mitchell, beer culture brings more than just benefits to the area’s bottom line. It’s also a great outward-facing advertisement. “Even the bottles themselves are advertising Portland,” he says. “So even from a branding standpoint, it’s reinforcing the type of image we want to convey as a community.
The craft-beer industry is an old one, but like home brewing, it’s awakening in smaller towns, creeping back into previously empty industrial spaces that now smell like boiling hops instead of mildew. Both industries are supporting a revival of choices that people like Dyster crave, catering to customers who prefer their brews to be not just bubbly, but also sundry in flavor. And they’re doing it to the tune of billions of dollars.
In 2014 (the last year data was available), the craft-brewing industry pumped $19.6 billion dollars of delicious sales revenue into the American economy, an almost 18 percent jump from the previous year. Production saw an identical boost. That year, craft-beer producers garnered a double-digit percentage (11 percent) of market share for the first time ever. These stats all come from the Brewers Association, the trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, whose chief economist, Bart Watson, says that it’s not just the fact that craft-beer producers are revitalizing towns, it’s also about how they’re doing it, especially for small to medium-sized towns.
“Breweries have the ability to revitalize formerly industrial spaces. Given the larger trends of de-industrialization it the U.S., this [growth] is critical for many small towns that have lost factories,” he says. “Brewing is one of the few manufacturing industries that has seen employment grow in recent years. In addition, the economic benefits of breweries are finely spread around the country. A total of 75 percent of 21-and-older adults now live within 10 miles of a local brewery, so the economic benefits accrue across a wide geographic area.”
But for Watson and leaders like Dyster in those small towns, the beer industry isn’t just an economic boon – it’s also a social one. “Breweries not only serve as engines of economic growth,” Watson says. “They are also community gathering places, give back to their communities, and take on the spirit of their location. In addition, they create ripples around them, as [brewers] are more likely to interact with other local vendors. Finally, they serve as tourist destinations and can help bring new out-of-town visitors to parts of town they might not otherwise visit.”
Most of the time when the beer industry provides an economic boost, it’s in ways that are hard to measure (how do you measure the quality of life improvement, for example)? Dyster, whose town built on tourism, recalls a time when its presence (or lack thereof) contributed to his community more directly. Several years ago, a large public employee union was considering holding a conference in Niagara Falls, which would mean a huge financial benefit and national exposure. Shortly after the group sent a team to scout the city, Dyster’s office received a list of demands. Among them: A beer requirement. The union was asking for, “A couple dozen more craft beers on tap within walking distance to the conference hall. This is important to our members, and we want to have our conference in a ‘cool’ city.” Dyster and his team worked with local restaurants and microbrewers, facilitating an increase in the number of local craft beers in the area. The union ended up picking Niagara Falls for their convention.
“There’s an expectation now,” Dyster says. “That when you visit a tourist city you’re going to have access to local products that are reflective of the culture of the area and incorporate local ingredients.” From home brewing to craft, the beer industry is fulfilling those expectations and building healthy communities while they do it.