Brewing Trouble: How to Drink Beer and Save the World

Beer, like so many other products, is largely in the hands of giant corporations. Therefore, drinking beer can often enrich the same systems of power we as activists are fighting against. Fermenting Revolution: How To Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher O’Brien (New Society Publishers, November 2006) 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.”

It is satisfying and rebellious in this increasingly corporate world to make your own beer. In Vermont, homebrewing and microbrewing is a state-wide past time; a 2005 census shows that there is one microbrewery for every 32,792 people in the state, which is the highest number of microbreweries per capita in the country. As many people know, beer drinkers can be activists in how they choose and make their own beer. Interested in changing the world through drinking? Fermenting Revolution can serve as a kind of bible for the beer activist that’s bubbling inside each and every one of us.

In Fermenting Revolution, O’Brien presents a people’s history of beer, allowing the reader to feel connected to beer activists centuries ago. The author explains the scientific process of brewing in an easy to understand style, 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 in the US.

One manifestation of beer’s role in modern spirituality is the local bar. The author writes that the bar can act “as a bridge between the sacred and secular domains.” O’Brien says that 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 US: “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 homebrewing industry is still strong and is largely controlled by women.

Another sign of hope is Vermont. According to an article in the VT-based Seven Days newspaper, women are no strangers to micro-brewing in the Green Mountain State. Vermont’s Trout River, Rock Art and the Alchemist Breweries all have women as co-owners or presidents. At Otter Creek Breweries, there is a woman CFO, brewer, packing manager and labeler.

Another widely discussed topic in Fermenting Revolution is the influence beer has always had on politics. Some interesting passages in the book describe early American history when rebels encouraged boycotts against English beer, using the phrase, “Homebrewed is best.” Shortly after the founding of the nation, it was common for politicians to reward their constituencies with beer at the polling stations. Often there was only one polling place per county, so after traveling such a distance to vote, the citizen wanted to be rewarded with a drink. Here O’Brien argues that “Given the dismal voter turnout levels in contemporary American elections, perhaps this strategy might be readopted? One ballot, one beer.”

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 of 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.

Though O’Brien explains that three companies control over 80 percent of the beer industry in the US, there are an estimated 250,000 homebrewers in the country, and the numbers are growing. Not only is homebrewing a fun activity to do with friends and family, but brewers can choose organic products to use as 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. In Vermont, we have a variety of organic products to use in our brewing, as well as a whole host of micro-breweries to choose from. (For those who want to learn how to homebrew, pick up a copy of Charlie Papazian’s easy to follow book The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, published by Harper Resource).

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 he lived in. 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 3 hours.”

Fermenting Revolution is not only informative, with pragmatic suggestions on social change, but it is fun to read. This mind-expanding book will make you thirsty for justice, and a good organic, homebrewed beer. Readers interested in self sufficiency and homegrown products should pick up a copy of Fermenting Revolution and get things brewing.

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Visit Chris O’Brien’s Beer Activist Blog for regular updates, news and links.

* This review was originally published in Vermont Commons.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Arch Stanton said on March 25th, 2008 at 11:20am #

    Thanks for the inspiration. I’ll join a local beer collective and I can finally be socially responsible when I drink. Woo-hoo!

  2. hp said on March 25th, 2008 at 2:34pm #

    Growing up in Pennsylvania, where there are one or two people of German descent, I remember beaucoup home brewers. This was a traditional part of small town and country living. Like gardens and canning food, hunting and fishing and trapping. We also made our own horse radish, sauerkraut, pickles, applesauce and rhubarb sauce.
    We used to have contests to see who could make the best cider also. Everything from applejack, which made that deep whump when you uncorked it, to the finest sparkling cider which rivaled champagne.
    That fresh beer was the best beer I ever had.
    Thanks for the memories, Chris.

  3. D. R. Munro said on March 25th, 2008 at 3:09pm #

    A much needed light-hearted article. Thanks.

    I bet we could get more to join us: “Drink beer! Be an activist!”

  4. siamdave said on March 26th, 2008 at 7:27am #

    grokked at On Green Island – ‘all free content, save your money for beer, it’s liberating’ –

  5. sheldub said on June 26th, 2008 at 2:32pm #

    im a politcally aware teenager…one thing that always strikes a chord of irony are all openminded punx wanting to fight the system and preach revolution but most smoke ciggerettes…i wonder how much thier habits cost…considering the fact they are contributing to very large corporations…doesnt that undermine our cause and commitment?
    so how about an article about growing tobacco and making ciggerettes?