"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,1 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,2 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.