Joe Sixpack | Want to know about beer? Here's the book

"SOME FOLKS believe that one day God will come down from the heavens and save the world," Christopher Mark O'Brien writes in his book, "Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World" (New Society Publishers, $18.95).

"The book in your hands is about how beer is already doing that."


Bud Lite fans - and anyone else who swills industrial suds - are going to feel as guilty as Catholics when they read this earnest diatribe against the commodification of beer.

And fans of Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland?

Bless you, for your favorite brewery makes its own bio-fuel, uses recycled sixpack cartons and strives for a zero-waste operation (not to mention making a fine Dortmunder).

I don't mean to trivialize the issues raised here.

"Fermenting Revolution" is undoubtedly the most politically aware book I've ever read about beer.

A fair-trade activist and organic brewing ingredients supplier, O'Brien offers an unapologetic manifesto "for building a better world with beer."

For the author, mankind's beers - from the very first sips from Siduri, the Sumerian beer goddess, to that can of PBR - are a direct reflection of history and culture.

O'Brien neatly lays out beer's centuries-long transformation from a "natural" product to a commodity - much to the detriment of our palates and souls.

"It is a democratic drink," O'Brien writes, "but it is also complicit in the tyranny of civilization."

He notes, for example, the important role beer played in winning the Revolution, with Washington urging citizens to drink American, not British, beer.

Two centuries later, O'Brien moans, beer showed its ugly side in American politics with the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Coors influencing elections with millions in campaign contributions.

O'Brien lays much of the blame on money.

Till the end of the Middle Ages, brewing was the domain of women, one of the skills required to run a household. Indeed, brewing likely gave women "a considerable degree of power" in those earlier societies, O'Brien says.

Ironically (or maybe not) it was the Roman Catholic Church that changed beer for the worse in Western culture. With the rise of monasteries in Europe, control of brewing was taken from individuals.

For the first time, independent breweries were taxed while male-dominated monasteries - and later merchants authorized by the reigning authorities - controlled access to ingredients.

The Reinheitsbegot of 1516, the seminal German purity law that standardized beer ingredients, was actually a government tax scheme, O'Brien writes, that effectively shut down small breweries operated by housewives.

Brewing, he says, "became more about the money."

This is an argument that anyone who drank beer in the 1970s surely understands. There were fewer than 50 breweries in America, the result of takeovers, consolidation and modernization - all driven by the pursuit of profit.

And good beer disappeared.

But it was nothing new. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, England saw the same thing happen to its beloved porter. That dark brew was once filled with a smoky character, the product of fire-roasted malt. Then more efficient malt-roasting techniques that employed coal eliminated the smoke. Cheaper, "black patent" malt to boost the color was substituted. As one British brewer laments, "The real flavor of porter, as originally drunk, is completely lost."

O'Brien sounds like he could use a drink when he observes, "Some view these innovations as the triumph of technology in helping man achieve better quality with less work and fewer resources. But the truth is, these so-called advances were driven by one consideration only, and it was neither quality nor sound resource use, but profit pure and simple."

O'Brien sees many hopeful signs. In just 20 years, thanks to the microbrewery movement, America has gone from a low of just 44 breweries nationwide to more than 1,500 today.

In the United Kingdom, the grassroots Campaign for Real Ale has more than 75,000 members who have rallied to protect historic breweries and demand that pubs serve an honest pint.

He even tosses kudos to A-B for reducing its solid waste by more than 50 percent and operating the world's largest aluminum-can recycler.

Meanwhile, small-scale brewing is a shift away from polluting, oil-dependent business practices, concentrating sales on the local market. And do-gooder breweries promote a range of progressive issues, from slow food to profit-sharing.

"More so than ever before," O'Brien writes, and I agree, "the world today needs beer." *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit Send e-mail to