Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World By
Christopher O'Brien, New Society Publishers (November 2006), 275 pages
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 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
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.