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Friday, November 11, 2016

The History of Beer is Political

When I give talks on beer, I usually pin them to national tradition. Wine, a similar fermented beverage, is a product of the grape, of agriculture. Beer is a constructed beverage, like cuisine, and is a product of culture. What is culture? I give examples: local ingredients, history, tax laws, famine, war, and those ineffable preferences that make Germans prefer schweinshaxe and the French Coq au vin.

The first Belgian brewery I ever toured was Palm (long story), and I heard a story there that was repeated in visits to breweries elsewhere in the country. The brewing equipment dated to around 1920, even in breweries that were decades or centuries older than that. The reason? During WWI, Germans harvested the metal for munitions.


The Czech Republic is another fascinating case study. The breweries there are retro; they are all designed around a four-vessel decoction system, which is by law the way one must make any beer called "Czech beer." They often have antiquated equipment like grants. In neighboring Bavaria, where decoction was invented, many modern breweries have abandoned the practice and it will someday be considered a rustic, old-fashioned exception, not the rule that defines lager-brewing. The reason? The former Czechoslovakia was for much of the 20th century an occupied land, and the innovations that visited breweries elsewhere skipped Plzeň and České Budějovice.

Exactly 500 years ago, a Bavarian Duke passed a law mainly concerned with price regulation, but which included a rider designed to protect the wheat supply of local bakers. Today, in a unified Germany, that law has radically shaped the way Germans brew--affecting beer styles, ingredients, and brewery design. The British government had a similar restrictive law in the 19th century, one that changed in 1880 and allowed brewers to use sugars and unmalted grain in their beer. That eventually led breweries in Ireland to include roasted (and unmalted) barley in their grists--an ingredient now considered the most distinctive element in Irish stout.

As a onetime political blogger, I often contrast the experience to writing about beer with the axiom "politics divide; beer unites." And interpersonally, this is undoubtedly true. In front of the taps, we are all on the same team. (Yay, beer!) But politics have had an enormous effect on the way beer, this cultural fixture, develops and evolves. Rarely in the US have national politics had much to do with the world of beer. After the rise of small breweries in the 1980s, a few laws were tweaked, but most of the serious change took place (or didn't) at the state level. But that doesn't mean they can't.

The election of Donald Trump may not change things much--all we can do now is guess at what his policies will be. But the GOP is almost certain to gut environmental regulations to address climate change. This could have very serious consequences, and not least for brewers who depend on both water-intensive crops and water itself for their livelihood (and it's why so many brewers, from Hopworks to Carlsberg, are focused on the issue). His economic policies may affect people up and down the economic ladder--and the economy as a whole. Foreign policy rarely affects breweries--until, as in the case of those Belgian breweries, it does.

I won't be getting into public policy on this blog unless it directly affects the beer industry--and I hope therefore never to get into public policy on this blog. But it's worth mentioning, on a week in which it at least feels like we've had a political earthquake, that elections do matter. And they can affect things as remote and unconcerned with politics as beer. We know this because the beers we drink were in so many ways shaped by politics, near and distant. The history of beer is a political one.

Be well, you all--


  1. Lovely piece. I winced reading the first five words of paragraph six, and I offer my deepest sympathies that you had to write them.

  2. Fantastic post - great way to finish a tumultuous week.

  3. Interesting you mentioned that beer is made with water intensive crops. I always thought with the indigenous movement in food that we would see a similar if not smaller movement in beer. Indigenous fermentatables and plants to make gruits that really spoke to a place. Maybe forcing people to look at the impact their consumption habits have is a good thing? As someone who supplements their food with some foraging, fishing, and hunting I have always wondered why people don't look at utilizing and cultivating local resources as a way to lessen their impact on the world around them... I know it's off the main gist of you article, but that one part stuck out at me as being a possible area of growth in the brewing industry.