beer pressure
Source Dan Scanlan
Date 06/10/25/23:37

How Microbrew Can Save the World

Small-scale, homebrew beer production plays a vital role in
sustainable development throughout the world.

By Chris O'Brien
Foreign Policy in Focus

THE WORLD'S CUP RUNNETH over with living beer traditions. But this
vast repository of cultural brewing capital is under attack by global
corporations. The top five brewing companies, all of which are
American- or European-owned, control 41 percent of the world market.
Perversely, economists and politicians calculate the conquest by
industrial breweries as economic growth while the value of small-scale
traditional brewing goes uncounted. Much will be lost if this global
"beerodiversity" is lost to the forces of corporate-led

The globalization of beer not only destroys the social, spiritual, and
health-related benefits of small-scale home beer production. It also
undercuts the vital role that home brewing plays in sustainable
development throughout the world. For 10,000 years, brewing has been
conducted at home, primarily by women, who were entrusted with
safeguarding traditions that strengthen social bonds and build
community identity. As an important component of diet, beer was
distributed by female household heads according to the values of the
community, which moderated consumption to socially acceptable levels. As
an inherently small-scale and local endeavor, brewing also has had a low
impact on environmental resources, relying on renewable energy
sources and
requiring little or no packaging or shipping.


Despite the seemingly inexorable march of the global corporate beer
industry, many African brewing traditions persist in the hands of
rural women who brew at home. Throughout Africa, most brewing and
drinking still occurs in the home, among family, and within the
boundaries of community standards. Four times more homebrew than
commercial-industrial brews is sold in Africa, which doesn't even
include the great volumes of homebrewed beer consumed outside the cash
economy. Women across sub-Saharan Africa use native grains like
sorghum, millet, and teff, to brew drinks like rammoora, farsi,
changaa, tella, and countless other uniquely African beer styles,
often using homegrown and hand-malted brewing grains and handpicked
herbs and spices.

This brewing provides a degree of economic empowerment to millions of
African women. A study conducted in Uganda and Kenya found that 80
percent of the women included in the survey brewed beer, and about
half of them had brewed beer for sale at some point in their lives.
According to the survey, very few men brewed, and virtually none of
them ever brewed beer for sale. Yet, men were found to account for a
majority of the consumption. In this way, home-brewing beer accords
women a degree of social and economic influence, helping to maintain a
peaceful balance of power between the genders, providing women with a
source of income and respect within the household.

Unfortunately, brewing traditions like these mostly go unnoticed and
undervalued by scholars, economists, and policymakers. The little
attention traditional drinks do attract tends to be negative. The
development community typically regards traditional drinks as
distasteful novelties at best and as destructive distractions at
worst. Aid workers in Kenya, for example, have called for the
prosecution of women who brew changaa, for reasons of public health and
sanitation. Meanwhile, Kenya's main industrial brewing company has
part-owned by Diageo, the world's largest beer, wine, and spirits
company, and SABMiller, the world's third largest brewing concern.

Africans, especially men, are fleeing the countryside in large
numbers, seeking opportunity in cities. Those who find small success in
the cash economy reach for a gleaming bottle of industrial beer as a
low-cost symbol of their participation in the modern economy. Many more,
though, find grinding poverty in Africa's megalopolises. Even the
relatively inexpensive bottle of lager is out of reach for the many
who resort to cheaper, highly potent modern versions of
traditional drinks in desperate attempts to escape urban misery.
Scenes of pre-Prohibition America and gin-soaked 18 th -century
London are
today being replayed in urbanizing Africa. Hard drinking is on the
increase, while community and family disintegrate under the pressures of

Such scenes are found around the developing world. In South America,
chicha, a traditional corn-based beer brewed by women, has become
relatively scarce as industrial beers produced by global brewing
companies fill the market created by the same urbanizing and
modernization pressures felt in Africa. Traditional rice beers in
Asia are
only hanging on as western-owned brewing corporations move into the
market. China in particular is at risk of losing its brewing
traditions as foreign companies such as InBev buy up local breweries,
temporarily making industrial beers cheaper and more attractive than
traditional beers.

Regulations are necessary to prevent the predatory practices of
corporate brewers and to preserve the role that indigenous brews play in
sustainable development. Indeed, there is a long and noble
tradition of just such regulatory practices that stretches back into the
very origins of human society.


The Sumerians, circa 4,000 BCE, established the world's first urban
trading society by growing surpluses of barley and emmer wheat, which
they fermented into copious supplies of beer for their own
consumption as
well as for trade with neighbors. Sumerians, and their successors the
Babylonians, adopted policies to promote and regulate the beer trade,
such as the Code of Hammurabi, which dealt specifically with matters
regarding beer (and the agriculture that made it possible), fixing a
fair price per unit, and setting daily rations for workers, civil
servants, and religious ministers. It was a recipe for success. Sumer
Babylonia thrived for over three millennia.

Egypt followed suit, constructing a powerful civilization fueled
largely by promoting the growth of brewing and trading beer. The
pyramids were essentially vast beer storerooms, symbolizing Egypt's
power over its neighbors, with whom they conducted large-scale trade in
grains and beer. Brewing, and its regulation, eventually spread north
into Europe where it became progressively more controlled and regulated
by church and state.

In 1516, the city of Ingolstadt issued the Reinheitsgebot, or purity
law, governing the production and sale of beer in the Duchy of
Bavaria. The law effectively excluded foreign and small-scale domestic
brewers by banning the ingredients customarily used in their beers.
This law was finally repealed as the result of a 1987 European Court
ruling, by which time it had become the world's longest-standing food
regulation. During the intervening half millennium, Germany became the
world's premier beer-producing country, in part because it had
protected domestic brewers from foreign competitors.

Beer was similarly important to America's success. The Pilgrims, who
quickly adapted to locally available brewing ingredients, eventually
became heavily dependent on British beer imports because their
population grew faster than their ability to produce adequate volumes of
beer. This colonial economic dependence became a key lever in the war
independence. George Washington himself devised strategies for the
brewing industry to help loose the yolk of Britain's economic

Washington, whose penchant for English-brewed porter beer is
well-documented, made the ultimate patriotic sacrifice when he
supported the non-consumption agreement, a bill drafted by fellow
patriot Samuel Adams (whose name now graces the labels of America's
leading craft beer). The agreement encouraged the colonial population to
abstain from imported goods such as ale and encouraged the
consumption of American-brewed beer.

After the Revolution, brewers carried banners in victory parades
proclaiming, "Home Brew'd Is Best." Washington immediately set about
crafting policies to stimulate local brewing, exclaiming: "We have
already been too long subject to British Prejudices. I use no porter or
cheese in my family, but that which is made in America ..." In 1789,
James Madison designed one of the first bills passed by the new House of
Representatives to keep taxes low on beer production in order to trigger
local brewing. Less than a hundred years later, in 1873, America could
boast 4,131 commercial breweries, plus countless private home breweries.


While both Europe and the United States currently support thousands of
microbrews, their domestically spawned global beer corporations are
destroying those same traditions in other countries by dumping
low-cost product on the market and driving out local competitors.
Fortunately, local and national brewers in the Third World are
fighting back.

Consider the case of Ethiopian t'ej and tella. T'ej, Ethiopia's
national drink, mixes fermented honey with a variety of herbs and
sometimes fruits. Historically, t'ej drinking was reserved
exclusively for
royalty, but eventually it became a drink enjoyed by all on special
occasions. Female household heads brewed t'ej for weddings, naming
ceremonies, religious holidays, and other celebrations. Tella is for
common drinking, brewed from locally grown grains and flavored with an
indigenous plant called gesho, which has been shown to have medicinal

The brewing of tella is still widespread, especially in rural homes,
where women earn a modest income from brewing as an occasional trade. In
the city though, industrial beers have taken root. Although all five of
the country's industrial breweries have been government-owned, the
brewing conglomerate BGI recently bought St. George Brewery in Addis
Ababa. Although beer judges rate its product as by far the worst of
Ethiopia's industrial beers, it has nonetheless quickly come to dominate
the market due to inflated advertising budgets and artificially low

Partly as a result of this marketing, many urban Ethiopians have come to
regard tella as hopelessly provincial. Urbanites differentiate
themselves from their poor rural countrymen by choosing the bland
foreign-owned, factory-made beer over the homemade stuff. The fate of
t'ej has been even worse. T'ej is stronger than industrial beer and
much cheaper than imported spirits, so it has slowly become the drink of
choice for impoverished men--the same refugees from the
country-side who seek economic opportunity in the city, but instead
find unemployment, loneliness, and despair. Nowadays, t'ej is more
often associated with excessive drinking sessions in debauched t'ej
halls than with royal ceremony. Having lost much of its dignified
luster, the quality of t'ej has also plummeted. Processed sugar often
replaces honey as the source of fermentation, and chemical food
colorings are used to approximate the yellow glow that comes when real
honey is used.

This degradation of t'ej inspired Ato Dereje, a recently returned
Ethiopian expatriate, to start a company called Tizeta T'ej. Dereje
believes that it is possible for t'ej to retain what's left of its
respectability and even to regain an esteemed place within Ethiopian
culture. His approach is to maintain strict standards of 100 percent
honey formulations and to give the beverage an attractive wine-like
packaging, with labels indicating alcoholic strength so that
customers can
choose lower alcohol versions. Dereje holds that t'ej must exude a
sophisticated image, appealing to mature customers that can still
recall the days when the drink held a place of honor at high

His line of Tizeta T'ej is now marketed through grocery stores and
restaurants around Addis Ababa, marking the first real attempt to
bring t'ej into a modern economy where it can compete against
expensive imported wines and liquors, while promoting a uniquely
Ethiopian drinking custom. His efforts thus far have proven
successful, and he is now looking forward to the day when, just like
bottles of merlot, his t'ej is exported around the world to
connoisseurs of excellent, regionally distinctive drinks. As a
locally-owned business using locally-produced ingredients for a
traditional drink, Tizeta T'ej serves as a model of how indigenous
brewing traditions can serve as both cultural and economic capital.

Dereje's early success can be attributed at least in part to the fact
that Ethiopia has been late to adopt policies that open its markets to
foreign imports, ownership, and investments. Other African countries,
which succumbed to the pressure of multilateral financing
institutions and
neoliberal trade policies, have not fared as well. Burkina Faso, where
the locally brewed sorghum beer, rammoora, is forced to compete against
a corporate monopoly created when the country's only industrial
brewery was virtually given away to the same French company that now has
a foothold in Ethiopia's brewing sector. Industrial beer can now be
found in any corner shop in Ouagadougou, while rammoora brewers, lacking
an infrastructure of support, are literally relegated to back alleys.


As Herman Daly wrote in the September 2006 issue of Orion magazine,
"Globalization serves not community among nations, but corporate
individualism on a global scale." So how might we protect local,
traditional beers from "globeerization?" Daly contends we need "a new
protectionism that protects us not from efficient competitors but from
destructive, standards-lowering competition." Emerging economies
should utilize tariffs to counter-balance unfair advantages gained by
countries that externalize social and environmental costs and rely on
heavily subsidized agriculture and artificially low fossil-fuel energy

Government-backed export investment and foreign credit, and huge
agricultural subsidies, continue to help American and European
multinational brewers enter and dominate developing markets.
Industrial products compete for market share against traditional,
indigenous beers that, when gone, will have taken important cultural
capital with them. Domestic policies that favor small-scale, local
production, just like the ones that now support the American
craft-brewing renaissance, must be applied to foreign policy as well.
Policies that burden small brewers with regulations must be reduced or
removed, while tax incentives and public giveaways to industrial
brewers are halted. Proven strategies can be used for promoting small
business, such as low-interest loans and other community investments
tools. Small-scale technology and structures must be prioritized in
order to benefit the greatest number of domestic brewers, while
subsidies favoring large-scale production and distribution should be

What we stand to lose is more than just a tantalizing array of exotic
beers. As is usually the case, women stand to suffer the most, since
they will lose control over drinking when industrial products owned by
foreign corporations replace their homebrews. If traditional drinks
disappear around the world, the societies that produce them will lose a
part of their identity as well as the intellectual property that can
as a wellspring for future economic growth.

[Chris O'Brien combines two favorite things: drinking beer and
saving the world. He is author of the new book Fermenting
Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World, and serves as
director of the Responsible Purchasing Network at the Center for a
New American Dream.]

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