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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The rise of craft beer: A different kind of progress

Here's the latest from Weston Easton, PhD candidate in Sociology at Michigan State and monthly Buzz columnist. This month Professor Wes describes how the craft beer movement evolved partly in response to the industrial food system. He also warns against being a beer snob, which is always good advice.

By Weston Eaton

In the United States, the rise of the craft beer movement paralleled a broader awareness of the social and environmental importance of food and agriculture. Exploring the common roots of these two movements can yield some insights into some common trends we see today—as well as some common failings critics are increasingly likely to point out. What I’d like to do here is give a less than scientific account of these co-histories and then point out ways we can all dodge the pitfalls of consumer-based food and drink movements, namely the slippery slope to elitism, snobbery, and indulgent exclusivity.

The years following WWII saw the rise in a number of interlocking trends resulting in full-on modernity, particularly for the realms of food and agriculture, including beer and wine. Social and industrial trends such as increased efficiency, mechanization, standardization, and rational thinking combined with technological advances in farm production to create an abundance of new consumer products and commodities which quickly turned novelty to new-necessity. But what were the costs of all this progress, and who was paying? The environmental backlash, as embodied in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, highlights the way the industrialization and modernization of our food and agricultural system disconnected society and nature in some very dangerous ways. Some people decided they no longer wished to participate in a food culture that was destroying our planet, and set out not only to oppose what others termed “progress”, but more importantly, to devise more sustainable lifestyles. Thus was born many movements—environmental, women’s, peace, civil rights. Indeed some deemed the U.S. a “movement society.”

This was also the birth of the do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land, “prosumer” movements, as well as a crystallization of organic farming as a political, socially and ecologically aware practice. Chefs and brewers both played an active role in defining how the alternatives to modernized cuisine were to look and taste and also determined the systems by which they were produced. In 1971, Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet linked health to plant-based agricultural systems. Katzen’s time devising and defining vegetarianism at the Moosewood Collective in Ithaca, NY, resulted in the most popular vegetarian cookbook of all time, the Moosewood Cookbook, published in 1977. That same year the Sierra Club published Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a scathing counterattack on U.S. agricultural policies which culturally and financially devastated American farmers. A bit later, Alice Water’s insistence that Chez Panisse serve seasonal and local produce showed the hidden deficiencies of industrialized agriculture. These mythical figures, and many others, were bent on redefining what food and agriculture should be by attempting to relink in the minds of the public the political, social justice, and ecological linkages between farm and plate.

Within this paradigm shift brewers began to question the industrialist ethic of corporate captured beer. Homebrewers like Charlie Papazian scoured for ingredients to brew their own, and recorded their success in how-to guides such as Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, published in 1984. As I’ve written about many times before, brewers, such as Michigan’s own Larry Bell, reached back through history and time to recreate styles of ales that for all practical purposes were extinct; and in the process create entirely new ones. Yet opening a business as a craft brewer is but one example of this new beer culture. Larger trends include homebrewing (there are more home brewers than professionals) and the do-it-yourself movements in general, generally defined. In this camp I include everything from canning one’s own home grown veggies to baking bread at home to planning and digging one’s own root cellar for storage and lagering. While each person has their own interpretations of the meaning and experience of this movement (broadly defined), like the food movements sketched above, its roots were in dissatisfaction with elite, mechanistic, and environmentally and socially unsustainable processes of production and consumption. It is my argument that this swing of the pendulum, a result of global shifts in power and production post-WWII, spurred the awareness of some few iconoclasts which eventually ‘struck a fundamental chord’ in the hearts of more and more people and yielded the victories and popularity we all celebrate today.

But like any successful social movement, the risks of co-optation are high. The organic movement is a prime example. How much of the grit of the values previously embodied in organic farming has been whittled away since control over its definition shifted scales from local producers to centralized standards? The essential point I want to make here about food, in order to make a connection to craft and home brewing, is the co-option of the meaning and values of organic food by corporate interests and the often uncritical way we consumers have responded. As a result, it's difficult to tease apart the specific usefulness of the organic label—is it meant to give consumers assurance that they are not participating in an unsustainable food system, or that they are eating healthy, untainted food? Or is this just a fashionable trend, a culinary expenditure that begets distinction and attention? What about producers, does this really help their local environments, or just allow them to sell food at a higher price? Obviously such binaries cannot be absolutely true on either extreme, yet the conundrum is clear: the purpose and meaning is open for debate within a field comprised of actors with unequal access to resources and claims to legitimacy and expertise.

What does this mean for craft beer and home brewers? The first point I want to make, and the original impetus of this short tale, is that as a movement, and an increasingly successful one at that, we are all vulnerable for co-optation by higher powers who are keeping an eye on us. In 1989 organics rose above one percent of the market share for the first time, and are now at least twenty percent. Last year craft beer represented almost ten percent of the market. These changes are scary for the powers that be, and by cutting into their profits, they will react. But the co-optation I am concerned about here is more cultural than financial. What does it mean to drink and brew craft beer, professionally and recreationally? Well, did it ever really mean anything in particular in the first place? As demonstrated above, my argument is that it did. Like participants of food and agricultural movements, craft beer drinkers, brewers, and homebrewers come from a long line of iconoclastic visionaries who were dissatisfied with the norms of the world they were born into. They wanted to change things and, importantly, to share the fruits of their labor with others. These challenged norms included the prioritizing of technological modernization and efficiency above all else, including the well-being of workers, consumers, the environment, and of course taste.

In short, good beer is meant to make you feel good, and part of this includes introducing others to the joy you have found in brewing or at least enjoying a beer whose values inherently challenge the Ellulian techniques of efficiency and technocracy. There’s something democratic here and that is my final point. Exclusivity, especially as an attitude, as represented by elitism and snobbery, is the opposite of democracy, a concept that does not imply mediocracy, or “par”, but rather the mutual, collective struggle for something better. So keep sharing the good stuff, and remember, craft beer potentially embodies a range of diverse values—what do you see when you look into your glass?

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