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Monday, July 25, 2011

Tracking our cultural roots: What's behind our turn towards home production?

By Wes Eaton

A version of this post is scheduled to appear in the August 2011 edition of Recoil Magazine.

Today’s rise in beer-attuned culture is part of a much wider movement pertaining to home production of food and beverages. My interest here is in beginning to trace this movement’s roots. Doing so might get us closer to understanding not only why it is people choose to expend precious time and undertake the technical and artistic challenge of producing common commodities at home rather than simply buying them, but also, we might find that the attempt to capture good beer, wine and food in our own kitchens and cellars is part of a larger yearning to fill a veiled yet nagging void some of us attribute to modern lifestyles.

While craft activities such as brewing beer and wine, making cheese and bread, and fermenting pickles and cabbage at home have similar culinary and process attributes - they each rely on natural bacteria (yeast) and we imbibe them - the more important element that binds them together is the fact that, when making stuff at home, you are the one doing the work. The independence inherent in these activities can be seen in other ‘back-to-the-land‘ practices - heating with wood, raising chickens for eggs, a cow for milk, gardening. Inherent then is a sense of self-reliance in these and other home but also community and regional practices (take localized renewable energy proposals for instance). Home brewers tell us “I brew the beer I drink” while bread makers and chicken owners express similar feelings of pride and accomplishment. We proudly pour out a pint, hand off a dozen eggs or pass on a hot loaf to our friends and loved ones, giddy in our anticipation of their enjoyment. I propose then that the attractiveness to undertaking these culinary and other feats, despite the required investment of time, money and energy, is perhaps spurred by feelings of control, independence and satisfaction that accompany home production.

This proposal begs at least three questions: Control of what? Independence from whom? What exactly was so unsatisfying? These are some real meaty questions, and I’m definitely not the first to pose them in regards to food. The new angle here, however, comes from linking them together with the home production of commonly available goods, such as craft beer. To do so, let’s take a look at craft beer more historically. Doing so will help tie together today’s home production movement with larger societal changes such as technology, agriculture and rural life.

As some of you keener beer geeks may already be thinking, people (re)turned to homebrewing because the alternatives were so poor. Prohibition, technological development and aggressive capitalism after WWII resulted in a monopoly of homogenous beer where before there was diversity. Innovative Americans, such as Charlie Papazian, had a taste for the beers of Europe - Blonds, Ambers, Bocks, Belgians, Hefeweizens - beers which veterans had grown accustomed to during their time overseas. Despite the complete lack of home brew shops, ingredients or even knowledge of brewing processes, the desire for good beer triumphed in the U.S.-born craft beer revolution.

Today’s story is different. In the last few years, craft beer, inspired by home brewers later turned entrepreneurs, has become a mainstay. In the massive U.S. beer market, craft beer (a relatively small segment still) is the only one posting consistent and continual growth. Once common only in urban centers, even the most remote of locations now appeases us beer geeks. My point then is to demonstrate that despite the availability of a legitimized commodity, the number of people getting into homebrewing continues to rise exponentially. In other words, beer is no longer brewed at home to fill a void in the market. Instead, a cultural void is being filled.

With this example in mind, let’s now go back and take a look at how this lines up with our three questions about control, independence and satisfaction.

Control of what?
While in the past, homebrewing was undertaken to re-instill flavor, variety and culinary integrity, today’s market supplies those needs. Control then is not sought over flavor alone, but over participation in the process of creation, regardless now of the need for a specific end.

Independence from whom?
Antagonism between ‘70s and ‘80s home brewing ‘back-to-the-landers’ and industrial lager moguls was once a political act. The same cannot be said about today’s breweries. In a sweeping generality, it can be said that U.S. craft beer is, at a minimum, diverse to the extent that ‘50’s beer was homogenous. Independence therefore is not from corporate overlords. Rather, today’s home producers are seeking independence from a more malicious encroachment: the non-stop reliance on the expertise of others, which is the hallmark of advanced, technical society.

What was so unsatisfying?
Contemporary home production infiltrates the cultural and social dissatisfaction arising from the slow transformation from an agricultural, production-based society to one defined by consumerism. Buying a finished product does not yield the same satisfaction as creating one’s own. So while it is necessary to purchase ingredients for recipes, tools and seeds for gardening, or materials for setting up your very own ‘off-the-grid‘ bug-out cabin, the experience of doing so is often very different from obtaining widely available commodity goods.

My point then is that home production may very well provide some of the social needs previously supplied but now lacking in everyday modern life.

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dogs in Grand Rapids, MI, where, a little more each day, homebrewers gain control.

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