Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Big Brewers Major Threat to Traditions 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, March 18 / 13

Zack Gross

Just the other day, there was a story on CNN about accusations in the US that beer companies were systematically watering down their beverages to save money. 

American consumers, it said, might be paying for less alcoholic brews than what their bottles indicated.  Ultimately, the question was: Did the minute amount of “watering” really make a difference?!  But for me, the question was:  If this story was brought to us by the Senior Beer Correspondent at the New York Times, does that mean there is a Junior Beer Correspondent at the Times (and can I apply)?

The word “beer” comes from the Latin “bibere” (pronounced “beeberay”), meaning “to drink.”  The Internet tells us that earthlings consume over 100 billion litres of beer annually and that Canadians on average drink 250 bottles of beer each year.  That's four times the amount of milk that each Canadian drinks!  Canadians spend just over 5o% of their alcohol budget on beer and, as it a low-cost consumable, that accounts for more than three-quarters of their alcoholic in-take. 

Archeologists uncovered the first signs of beer-making when digging around the Sumerian civilization of 6000 years ago (what is now Iraq).  Pictographs showed a recipe wherein bread was baked, crumbled and left to ferment in water until a brew was served that had people feeling “wonderful and blissful.” 

The quality of beer underwent improvements in the ensuing millennia, with more filtration and sometimes the addition of fruit to enhance the taste. 

By Roman times, beer had become the drink of the masses and barbarians, while wine was the choice of the upper classes (some things don't change!).  Beer was considered safer than plain water and often was used as payment, instead of coins.  Women were the brewers as they were the bread-bakers.  However, in the Middle Ages, monks cut into their work, refining the process and ultimately leading to the sale of beer in pubs!  The pubs were eventually taken over by private enterprise and monarchs collected taxes from beer sales.

Germany around 1500 became the first large-scale beer exporter and regulations were brought in to ensure taste and safety standards.  With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, steam engines and artificial cooling made it possible to brew good, safe commercial beer year-round.  Beer cans entered the US market in 1935 and metal kegs replaced wooden barrels in 1964.  As well, what had been an industry of thousands of small companies and homebrews, became dominated in recent years by five American and European companies that now control almost half the beer production in the world.

And so we come to the crux of this seemingly frivolous article – the loss in our world of “beero-diversity!  Just as corporate agricultural practices are threatening our loss of biodiversity, the domination of brewing is driving many small enterprises out of business, wiping out traditions and values in a multitude of cultures, and ultimately “dumping” a cheap, homogeneous product on global markets.  Some traditions are fighting back – from micro-breweries in the developed world to micro-finance efforts in Third World countries – all in the name of sustainable development.

Like European traditions, most beer around the world has historically been made by women and distributed in their communities according to local acceptable standards of moderation. 

In Africa, women brew beer using native grains, following low-impact environmental methods, and adding local herbs and spices.  Women not only control beer-making, but also are the ones who sell the beer, according themselves some economic power and respect within the family, in a culture that often relegates women to the bottom of the ladder, below men and male children. 

Eighty percent of East African women, surveys show, brew beer and four times as much beer is brewed at home as bought in pubs.  While we may look down on people who brew beer, the alternative for men (women brew, men consume) is to buy globalized beer, controlled by large foreign corporations.

Globalization is also driving men from the countryside into the city, where they most often find few opportunities and grinding poverty. 

Men enter a world of disappointment and addiction, away from their families, and community disintegrates. 

Corn-based beers in Latin America and rice-based beers in Asia are also falling to the march of globalized beer.

Urbanization and modernization have not improved the lot of most people.  For those whose incomes are improving, they are leaving their traditional brews behind and drinking globalized beer to demonstrate how they've modernized.

So, this is a story of interest to women in unexpected ways during the week of International Women's Day and of interest to those who worry about culture, the environment and local control of development. 

Subsidies toward small-scale technology and brewing, control of foreign imports in favour of local production, supports for women's micro-business efforts, use of local crops, and keeping rural communities alive and productive – even beer-making traditions can have an impact on economy, society and the natural world in which we live.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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