If you don’t like civilization, please don’t blame it on beer

barley for beer

Did hunter gatherers invent agriculture just so they could grow barley for beer? Photo: Jinx! via Flickr.

I like beer. But I’m not so sure how I feel about civilization these days. When I think that humans taking control of the Earth has killed whole seas, is melting permafrost and may just end the whole thing in a mushroom cloud of thermonuclear Armageddon, it doesn’t make me want to enjoy a cold tumbler of a hoppy IPA. It makes me want to swig Gordon’s Gin straight from the bottle.

So why, then, did the Discovery Channel have to go and try to ruin my enjoyment of beer as an innocent, Earth-friendly pleasure?

I know the Discovery Channel didn’t mean to do it. They thought they were boosting beer by connecting it to civilization’s early accomplishments like farming and the pyramids with their hour-long documentary, “How Beer Saved the World.”

So when the show’s historians and anthropologists go on to explore the theory that a thirst for beer, rather than a hunger for bread, successfully tempted hunter-gatherers to start tilling the soil of the Fertile Crescent so they could grow not wheat to bake but barley to brew, it’s supposed to make beer into a hero. If that led to the invention of farming, the rise of cities and the creation of mathematics and writing, then we should take beer more seriously. And if the frothy stuff went on to help start the American Revolution or end child labor, that’s only to beer’s credit.

But in these days of economic and ecological collapse and peak oil, it’s hard to keep up that kind of optimism about human progress and the march of civilization. And that can take the head off any brew.

Bringing it all back home

Just take the American Experiment, for example.

We may like to post noble quotes from the founding fathers on Facebook about restraining the power of corporations and bankers. Still, I’d like to think that Jefferson and Franklin were quaffing an ale (even if it was served, old-timey style, at room temperature) at a Philadelphia publick house while they brainstormed righteous pamphlets to tweak the nose of George III.

But if beer was so instrumental in American history, does that mean it also shares blame for such innovations as killing Indians, enslaving Africans and setting up an empire of shopping that’s left no corner of the Earth safe from its bottomless hunger for oil or for places to dump its garbage?

I started home brewing a couple years ago as a way to learn a useful, low-tech skill that could help give my family some resilience in an uncertain future. Oh, and insure my beer supply.

Now, to learn more and hopefully brew better tasting beer, I’ve moved away from convenient home brew kits with cans of malt syrup and hops already thrown in, to all-grain brewing, which requires hours more time per batch to boil and strain your own malted barley and then add in your own hops. Only time will tell if the result is worth the extra trouble.

But do I now have to worry that I’ve taken up a hobby that’s responsible for alienating humans from nature?

No-guilt brew

I’m going to have to ferment on this one with my next batch of Cream Ale.

It may be that making and drinking suds are pleasures that I’d have to give up if the people around me ever returned to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But in that unlikely event, I’d probably have bigger problems than my own moral complicity in the project of civilization.

Meantime, I wonder if it’s the act of farming or cultivating or civilizing that’s so bad, or rather, if it’s just the huge scale of our fossil-fueled industrial growth economy?

Size does matter.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. perceptiventity says

    You can easily enjoy a beer without knowing about the thousands of years alcohol has modified the senses of our species. We’ll go out to a bar to participate in a ritual to help us deal with the tasks of a work day, yet what if a tree does the same? Should alcohol be recognized for its ability change our consciousness in a sacred way? Are other species using the same substances we do in modifying their ability to perceive signals?


    • says

      Interesting thought that alcohol can alter consciousness as part of a spiritual practice, like peyote for Southwestern Indians, or numerous others in religions around the world. And someone recently told me that elephants stomp on some kind of fruit to help ferment it.

  2. BuckwheatWaffles says

    While beer was probably powerful motivation for agriculture and growing grains the role of beer in our modern life has obscured its original purpose. According to Scientific American articles on Egyptian culture (no way could I find the references now) Egyptians were high all the time because essentially their entire fluid intake was in the form of alcoholic beverages. So, they had a market for beer that the Superbowl sponsors could but envy. They had a choice — beer or water borne illness from filthy water.

    You see, people congregating in excess of local carrying capacity preceded the whole mess, and one could bet that sanitation was right up there in the problems list, well before hunger, etc. required abandoning hunter gatherer habits.

    So, Erik, you should elevate your passion for beer from a mere hedonistic pursuit to a critical survival skill that may well help you keep disease at bay for your family and community.

    • says

      I’ve always wondered if some of our most revered historical figures might have been drunk much of the time, which may have reduced the kind of inhibitions we suffer today (which we call sober good judgment) and helped them to act boldly. As to the future, I agree that reskilling adds resilience, so I’m trying to take my beer making more seriously. Next step is to make a decent batch that I won’t be embarrassed to share with anyone!

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