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Drink Beer, Save the World

How home brew ferments revolution.

By Benjamin Dangl 15 Apr 2008 |

Benjamin Dangl is a member of the Burlington, VT, Homebrewer's Co-op. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007) and edits an international news website, A version of this review was originally published in Vermont Commons.

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Unite to fight 'Globeerization'!
  • Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World
  • Christopher O'Brien
  • New Society Publishers (2006)

Beer, like so many other products, is largely in the hands of giant corporations. Fermenting Revolution: How To Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher O'Brien is a book about how the people can take back the brew and join together in saying, "If I can't drink good beer, it's not my revolution."

O'Brien presents a people's history of beer, explaining the scientific process of brewing in an easy to understand style while avoiding what he calls "beer geek-speak." The book goes into the important role women have historically played in beer making, and how people can take on corporate globalization by making and drinking their own beer. It's time to get to the home fires brewing!

A people's history of beer

O'Brien starts his book out by taking us through the long and intoxicating history of beer. It is in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, where first emerged the trade of beer and barley. The need to cultivate crops for this important product may have been the initial reason for the settlement of the world's first human civilization. In Babylonia, where beer was safer to drink than the canal water, barley and beer were used as a form of currency. O'Brien argues that the foundations of modern society are built on, well, beer.

Beer has also played a central role in the world's major religions. The author suggests that a down-to-earth Jesus who "made a point of associating with ordinary folk" would probably have preferred the common beverage of beer, rather than expensive and elitist wine. "I rather like the image of Jesus as a long-haired, beer-drinking rebel, welcome to crash any party so long as he was willing to conjure up a bottomless supply of beer. Rock on, Rock of Ages!" O'Brien writes that the typical image of Buddha with a round belly suggests the spiritual figure may have been a regular consumer of beer. After all, the Buddha "encouraged abstention from intoxicating drink and drugs" but didn't totally discourage consumption. And none other than Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) is listed by the Catholic Church as a Patron Saint of Brewing. With stories like this linking beer to religion, O'Brien argues that "sbeerituality" needs to be put back into our drinking culture.

The local bar, he says, can act "as a bridge between the sacred and secular domains." In bars in Asia, it's often common to see a nearby altar with alcohol as an offering. Similarly, worshipping ancestors is often common at bars in the U.S.: "It's the picture of "Old Joe" hanging behind the bar. 'Joe' built the place in nineteen-hundred-and-something-or-other, and now after his death, he offers his blessings or his disapproval to what goes on in his sacred beer-drinking place."

A recurring theme in Fermenting Revolution is the role women have played in brewing and beer culture throughout history. Some of the earliest signs of beer show that women were primarily the brewers, and later the tavern owners, that supplied beer. This meant women historically played an important role in society through their control of the beer industry. For example, O'Brien tells us that Viking women in Norse society at the end of the first millennium were the only ones allowed to brew beer. According to law, brewing equipment could only be used by women.

As time went on, however, women around the world were pushed out of brewing by men who felt threatened by the power wielded by women brewers. O'Brien calls himself a "femaleist": he believes that beer brewing has empowered women in the past, and has the potential to do so now. "More women brewing and drinking beer would help correct some of our socially constructed gender imbalances." He laments the fact that today the beer industry is dominated by machismo: "Women of the world, greedy men have stolen your beer and its time to take it back." However, one hopeful example O'Brien points to is Ethiopia, where the home brewing industry is still strong and is largely controlled by women.

Think globally, brew locally

For centuries, beer was brewed primarily at home in unregulated settings with home-made recipes. When corporations began making beer for profit, a lot of the culture and spirit of the craft was lost. Yet O'Brien believes that corporate "globeerization" can be fought through "beeroregionalism." While corporate control of production centralizes beer power in the hands of a few, beeroregionalism, as defined by O'Brien, is a return to local production and community.

The author argues that the craft of making beer should be cherished as an ingredient in community-building, not as an assembly-line method of making money. The author walked the talk at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Though there's a picture in the book of O'Brien dressed up as a turtle with some other friends at a march, he admits he spent a lot of his time in the famous brewpubs of Seattle rather than in the streets.

O'Brien reminds that not only is home brewing a fun activity to do with friends and family, but brewers can choose ingredients and not rely on corporations for their beer. O'Brien also reminds us that brewing at home cuts down on fossil fuel consumption in that homebrew doesn't rely on gas for delivery.

Every reader of Fermenting Revolution is likely to find something that strikes a personal chord with them. For me, it was a history of the tin beer can. My grandfather was an avid recycler of beer cans in the college town where he lived. He was able to save tens of thousands of dollars from the nickels acquired over decades of digging through garbage bins and salvaging cans after college parties. O'Brien tells us that in 1959, Bill Coors, the owner of the beer company which carried his last name, developed the first seamless aluminum beer can. His colleagues in the industry laughed at him even when he asked people to return the cans for a penny a piece -- but it worked! O'Brien writes that using a recycled can utilizes only five percent of the energy required to produce a new can from scratch: "Recycling one can saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours."

Fermenting Revolution is fun to read. This mind-expanding book will make you thirsty for justice, and a good organic, homebrewed beer.

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