"It just gets too hyped up and almost becomes a parody of itself"
The Fingers Interview with Austin Beerworks cofounder Michael Graham about "best of" rankings, city hype cycles, and running a brewery in a boomtown
You know how those listicles that are like “Top 15 American Cities to Move To” always seem to highlight the same few places like Asheville, Boise, and Austin, which would seem to make them inherently self-obsoleting, because if everybody keeps moving to the same few cities, won’t those places just become overcrowded and less pleasant to live in for residents both new and old, thus tanking the semi-scientific metric analysis that landed them on those listicles in the first place? Of course you do. Have you ever wondered what that process looks like from the ground?
As a recently former resident of Charleston, South Carolina, I’ve got some idea. National publications like Condé Nast Traveler, Southern Living, and Travel + Leisure have heaped accolades on Charleston over the past decade, and the attention has helped to turn what was once a semi-sleepy regional vacation destination into a Sun Belt boomtown. With a food scene that punches above its per-capita weight, several semi-pro sports teams, and a cultural schedule studded with recreational expos and global performing arts festivals, all fronted by the postcard-worthy facades of The Holy City’s historic row homes, churches, and storefronts, it’s easy to understand why outsiders view the small Southeastern city as an attractive place to make a home—particularly when coming from the older, colder, and more crowded cities of the Northeast and Midwest.
It may surprise you to hear that Charleston IRL is much different than its glossy, superlative media representation. Its non-car transit infrastructure is dismal; its job market is limited; real-estate developers, small-business emperors, and socialites whose present-day wealth and influence can be directly traced back to slaveholding ancestors together form a formidable bulwark to meaningful social progress on virtually every front. Today, Charleston is home to one of the most overheated housing markets in the country, a deadly and defunct road system, and enough boomer retirees with Fox News brainworms that a Pentagon-suspended MAGA maniac has a decent shot at primarying nakedly careerist GOP Congresswoman Nancy Mace from the right. The pandemic-prompted influx of anti-mask/-vaxx “medical refugees” with free time a-plenty to jam up municipal proceedings, and young unmarried professionals with newly remote jobs and fat salaries to spend on skyrocketing rents,has only exacerbated Charleston’s growing pains.
I only lived in Charleston for 3.5 years, and depending on whether you make moral judgements on where and why people move,I could be considered part of the problem, an outsider complicit in “ruining” the city. I’ve since decamped from South Carolina, but I think about this stuff a lot anyway, which is why I was so keen to interview a native of another 21st-century boomtown below the Mason-Dixon: Michael Graham, a born-and-raised Austinite and the cofounder of Austin Beerworks. Michael had recently tweeted a mild gripe about his hometown’s growth spurt over the past decade, which has roughly coincided with a three-year stint atop U.S. News & World Reports’ “Best Places to Live” rankings, plus the arrival of major employers like Apple and Tesla, plus the pandemic.
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I got in touch for a phone interview, and we spoke last week at some length about many different aspects of this boomtown conundrum: how it manifests for residents, what it feels like emotionally, how “best of” media coverage often elides (and may even make worse) the complexities of local civic life, and much more. Because Michael is the cofounder of a craft brewery, I asked him how he balanced his frustrations with growth as a resident with the opportunities that growth presented for his business. I also pressed him a bit on how craft breweries—which are often indicators, if not impetuses, of gentrification and displacement—can or should address their participation in this tangled, tense matter. Michael answered all my questions with evident thoughtfulness and care, and I think we had a really productive, thought-provoking conversation. Hope you agree.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Meet Michael Graham, cofounder of Austin Beerworks
Dave Infante, Fingers: Thanks for getting on the phone, Michael.
That tweet you sent the other day really resonated with me. I lived for about three and a half years in Charleston, South Carolina, and there's a lot of discourse there about whether ranking really highly for quality of life in national media coverage is actually a net positive for the residents of that city. So when you tweeted something similar about Austin, that sounded very familiar. By way of starting things off: how long have you personally been in Austin? Are you an Austin native?
I’m a native, yeah, I grew up here, and more or less spent my whole life here. I went to college and in Colorado, so I was out there in Boulder for about seven years going to school and being a ski bum, and then ended up moving back to Austin in 2006, starting the brewery in 2009, and been here ever since. We signed a lease on our warehouse in 2010 and then sold our first beer in 2011.
That timeline precedes the boom that Austin is currently going through. Can you characterize a little bit what Austin was like when you came back from college and began drawing up plans for the brewery? If If my memory serves correctly, that was still in the early kind of food truck rally era, right? Tell me what the landscape was like then.
I look back on it and it seemed like paradise. I think that's partly because I was 25 and freshly out of college, and that’s just sort a fun time regardless. I feel like Austin was… I mean, there was a buzz around it. Whenever I would say I was from Austin, regardless of where I was traveling, people would be like Oh, I heard Austin's a really cool city. I really want to check it out. It was one of those places that people had heard of but never been to, and it really didn't have any negative connotations at all. Other than in Texas: if I ever met somebody from Dallas and I said I was from Austin, they’d be like, Oh, you’re one of those Austin guys. But in general I think a good national and international reputation of being cool city based on South by Southwest and its live music scene and all the other things it’s kind of become known for.
The ability to pay our people enough to live anywhere close to the brewery is getting increasingly difficult.
At that time, food trucks were just starting to pop up, and they were sort of this novel, weird, funky thing. Funnily enough, like looking back on that decade, with a lot of my worldview shaped by beer, one of the cool things was that Austin had a pretty good craft beer scene. Not so much local breweries, there were a few, but there were like three or four like really great craft beer bars. They got specialty stuff from all over the country, and it was just a really neat scene. It kind of felt like a secret club. Maybe that’s a good analogy. Maybe they tracked each other: the rise and somewhat-fall of craft beer over that time, and the rise and somewhat-fall of Austin. Maybe it happened for similar reasons too: it’s buzzworthy for a reason, and then maybe it just gets too hyped up and almost becomes a parody of itself, and all the things that made it cool in the first place get diluted out. Everything that was cool about the thing in the first place gets changed and distorted and and becomes not the not the cool thing anymore.
Let’s talk about that a little bit. Was there a moment when you sort of started to realize like, Huh, things are changing at a at a rapid pace here in ways that seemed good but maybe aren’t so good, like a holy shit moment?
Some of those first feelings were, oddly enough, transportation-related, driving-related. It used to be easy to go just to go downtown and park. Parking was never never a concern. In those earlier days, it was a 10- to 15-minute commute to and from work, whereas now, if I don’t plan my route home well, it could be 45 minutes to an hour. Some of those infrastructure limitations were some of the first signs of like, Wow, there are just so many more people here now than before.
So from 2017-2019, Austin makes the U.S. News and World Report Best Place to Live top spot. Was there a notable uptick in some of these problems? Was it kind of just more fuel to the fire? In other words, how much of the changes you experienced in Austin do you actually attribute to the city’s high rankings?
I feel like it would have probably regardless of those ratings, but they kind of validated what people were already already saying or thinking about Austin. They certainly didn’t cool anything off. The metrics that U.S. News and World Reports used, I think there’s quality-of-life stuff, but also to property value compared to average income, and all all these things. Of course, sort of by nature of the list, it affects those metrics. I don't think it's possible for a city to be high in those rankings consistently without without negatively affecting the metrics that they use for those ratings.
Yeah, that's a good point. Once a city gets to that top spot, it’s a target for everyone who wants to move there, which means that it’s almost certainly going to get knocked off that that top spot eventually.
Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you about this, Michael, is because you’re a brewery owner in addition to being an Austin resident. Craft breweries are not exactly a “quality-of-life” factor, but when you think about Millennial and Gen Z consumers, I think a good craft brewery scene is genuinely attractive to that type of that type of potential homebuyer, potential renter, potential resident. How do you think about this issue as a native who's kind of seen Austin change in ways that maybe frustrate you versus as a business owner who I’m assuming benefits from this?
Oh, yeah. I guess it’s just perpetual conflict.
As a business owner, there are pros and cons. Yes, there are more customers, and it seems to be that the people moving to Austin are sort of the target demographic: the age range, the salary range, of the average craft beer consumer. That’s sort of my mantra to myself when I am stuck in that traffic. I just look around at a line of cars stretching for miles and I just think Wow, look at all these customers. But also, while there are more and more people moving to the city, there are also more and more breweries opening up, which as a consumer is great, but then as a business… When we opened, I think there were four or five breweries in the county that we're in, and now there are over 80, which is awesome. I mean, it’s great as a beer lover and drinker. But as a business owner, that’s just a lot more competition. And I guess you could say it’s a good thing. Competition is a good thing for pricing and, and making a better product. But it’s a lot more difficult as a business owner to make now than it was when we first opened.
Really what keeps me up at night is just the ability to pay our employees enough to live here. I think by any measure we’ve been a successful craft brewery and done about as well as we could do, but we're still just no match for the cost of living in Austin. The cost of beer hasn't increased at the same rate as the cost of housing and the cost of general living. That more than anything is at the heart of the challenge. Yeah, there's inflation and the costs of goods in general are going way up, but just the ability to pay our people enough to live anywhere close to the brewery is getting increasingly difficult. I don't know where that's going to shake out.
I know that that's a crunch that a lot of brewery owners are facing. I mean, that was a concern in Charleston as well, where the housing costs are quite high. Can you talk me through how you're thinking about that problem? You obviously can’t run a brewery without employees.
I mean, we talk about it constantly. On the one hand, we try to have our pay and benefits be on the top tier of the local beer scene. As far as local breweries go, I think we're paying more and have better benefits than most others. So people that are already here and want to be in the brewing industry, I think we're an attractive option. Looking outside of our market, Austin is still a desirable place to live, but its cost of living has has increased pretty quickly to where it’s going to be an increase coming from pretty much anywhere, so people would have to balance that with any increase in pay. Funnily enough, we've gotten a few new brewers from California, which is probably one of the only places where the cost of living is actually higher.
There's no good answer, because we just cannot increase our prices enough and remain competitive in retail while also keeping up with that cost of living. I guess one thing that we have been considering and focusing on is how to maximize our taproom sales, because the margin is much higher than in retail and wholesale sales
Of course, there's an irony there because that requires good foot traffic from consumers with discretionary income, which is often those customers that you see when you're in car traffic.
Yeah, and I also feel like it places a limitation on how big we can actually get. The way to get bigger is kind of competing with price and pushing out further and limiting your profitability for the sake of volume growth. We’re much more focused on getting profits up than getting volume up, so we’re changing our model a bit in that way.
Coming from the media side of things, I think the format of listicles, or rankings, really exploded as a trend almost along the same timeline that Austin's growth has hit its big hockey stick uptick over the course of the past decade. That type of article format can kind of be applied to anything, right? It can be applied to the top places to live. It can also be applied to the best breweries to drink at, best restaurants, whatever. To the extent that you think about this consciously at all, how much culpability or responsibility do you assign to the negative effects of Austin’s growth, at a local level?
In other words, Austin is ranked one of the best places to live from 2017 to 2019, and that has some impact on the residents of Austin on the ground in a way that maybe isn't felt by people who write the rankings. In the same way, if I wrote, you know, a listicle about the top 15 breweries in Austin that gets shared far and wide on social media, and all of a sudden Austin Beerworks’ taproom is in the weeds because I sent an unreasonable amount of foot traffic to you on a Saturday, maybe there's a negative impact. I kind of think about it like a double-edged sword that type of consumption-oriented media. I'm curious to hear how you look at that format and framing as someone who's who experiences it on the other end.
It reminds me of that old joke of two guys talking about a restaurant, and one of them says “Oh yeah, nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
Right, yeah. So those listicles… I mean, gosh, I feel like if anything, it just sort of speeds up the process. People have always looked for the cool new place or the best deal or whatever, but that used to spread by word of mouth or maybe a newspaper. These days, it’s just so easy to share information. I mean, the deal with Austin or Charleston is that they pop up on these lists because they are cool. There is something cool about them. If it sucked, it wouldn't really matter, because people wouldn’t decide to actually move there. So there's some truth in it. And there’s, I guess call it a “hipster mentality,” what makes things cool a lot of times is that not a lot of people know about it, so there's that sense of discovery, of uniqueness. It’s something special, you’re in on something other people aren’t in on. That's a really cool thing. I think it's only natural to want to share that thing with the people that you like and care about, too. It just goes from there. It only happens if there's if there's some truth and authenticity to it.
The whole city is getting priced out.
I just don't think humans are very good at existing in equilibrium with anything. If it's a great resource, and easy to get, we'll just go consume it until it's ruined, and then move on to the next thing. I don't want to get too dark about that, but I think that’s sort of the nature of what people do. In some ways, it's kind of amazing that people actually have the ability to move from one place to another and make a whole existence there at the drop of a hat. This is kind of a neat thing that we're that we're even able to do. Thinking about Austin in particular, it happens neighborhood by neighborhood, and it’s happened for a long time. I guess you’d call it gentrification. All kinds of young artists and creative people move to an area and then make a really cool scene out of it, and then it becomes the cool area to go to. Then people with more money will move in and drive up the values and push out the people that made it cool. Then they go somewhere else and make that the cool new neighborhood, and it happens again. You could say that that’s happening to the city as a whole. The people that have lived here for the longest time and sort of developed the culture and feel of the city, are getting priced out. I mean, the whole city is getting priced out.
Most people I know who grew up here and lived here for a long time and have been priced out, they’re either moving to the outskirts of town or just somewhere else completely. Whether that's a good or a bad thing, I really don't know, but it's sad. I wish everybody could do exactly what they wanted to do. I don’t know who to blame for these negative effects and consequences. It’s just global forces at work. Our city has had the philosophy of “if you don’t build it, they won't come,” with roads and infrastructure and everything else. I think they think purposely chose not to build a city for growth, but people came regardless. So then it just causes more and more problems. I don’t have an answer other than that it feels like we're at the mercy of things much bigger than ourselves.
Sure, sure. It’s a vexing problem, right, because it’s so big you can’t really get your arms around it, right? This gets at a question we’ve been building towards over this conversation. Some people consider businesses like craft breweries, third-wave coffee shops, and art galleries, et cetera, as second-order effects or at least indicators of the gentrification process that we’re describing. People love these things, and they drive up surrounding property values, right? When a warehouse gets converted into a craft brewery, there's a lot more reason to live in a neighborhood that might not have had much beforehand.
We see it all over the place, and there are pros and cons on either side of that equation. You started Austin Beerworks in 2010. You've had success with it. We've described a cyclical process by which people come in and consume and price out others and then maybe move on if they're able to, but you've got a business, you've got a family and you don't, you're not going to move on. There's a tension there, right? Austin Beerworks is maybe part of the reason people want to be there, but if it is, then it’s also part of the reason that some of your employees might not be able to afford to live near the brewery. As a business owner how do you view your responsibility, knowing that your business does have that potential effect?
I think honestly just caring is a big part of it. Having some self-awareness is important too. We talk about that a lot: Ultimately, what do we want Austin Beerworks to be? We talk about the quality of beer obviously. But really, when we talk about that, it’s that we want to be a business that makes Austin a better place to live, or that makes people proud to live in the town, that we’re part of the community. But what does that mean? We talk a lot about that too. Because we’re a business, and by definition in order to exist we have to be making a profit. We're extracting money from the community to exist, that's the whole nature of business. But we also feel like we exist sort of at the pleasure of the community. So what can we do to not ruin a good thing? An answer on our end is just try to be good community members, to create something of value beyond just the thing we sell, as a gathering space, or a thread in the fabric of the community that adds value. We give a pretty good percentage of profits to local charities and nonprofit groups, and even just local sporting leagues, to support things that people like to do away from work and home. Beyond making a profit on the things we sell, we try to be a positive piece of the community. Even that, you could argue about what that means. But if you’re actually concerned about being a good community member, having that true intention, I think that goes a long way.
Yeah, well said. Last question for you: I noticed that Austin toppled from the top spot in the rankings this year. It’s ranked the 13th-best place to live in 2022. Is that a relief for you?
Gosh, you know, I mean, I still have hometown pride, so I’d like to see Austin as number one forever, for no real reason other than personal pride I guess. I don’t know why it makes any difference, because it's still number one in my book, otherwise I’d move somewhere else. But yeah, in some ways, it is kind of a relief to get the heat off. Because just like anything else, when you're when you're Number One at whatever, it just creates resentment from everybody else. It's a lot easier to not be the one that everybody's talking about all the time, and just sort of do your best behind the scenes rather than to be at the top of the mountain. So yes, in that way, I think it is kind of a relief.
According to the Washington Post’s very-cool rent increase tracker, rent in all of Charleston County (including more rural areas beyond the city) has increased 19.6% since 2019. Travis County, where Austin is located, saw a 17.4% increase over the same period.
In my case: from Brooklyn to Charleston in 2018, for my wife’s job and a change of pace.