J500 Media and the Environment

Food through Beer Colored Glasses by acbowman

Much of my insight into the world is through beer.

And surprisingly, not always through consumption.

As I was looking through the photo essay of food consumption around the world, (sober) I recognized them from an article I read in Time Magazine last summer. Of course I couldn’t remember the specifics of the article, just that I had read it. So I read it again.

The article focused on the loss of the national identity of food.

For thousands of years, humans were chiefly agrarian, which meant that you ate only what you could grow or slaughter yourself or trade for locally. Geography was culinary destiny.

That last sentence struck a an alcohol related chord in my head. For the last 20 years there has been a reinvention of beer. In this country, what once was limited to the American light adjunct lager and it’s “less filling” counterpart, beer has transformed into a regional culinary treat. This is all thanks to the craft or micro brew boom.

Anchor Steam Brewing Company

Photo Courtesy of USA Today

Now you can go to any part of the country and find a relatively local glass of suds. Each one is a unique beer experience. But this didn’t just happen. It started with the legalizing of home brewing by Jimmy Carter. (Thanks Jimmy) Then it took beer connoisseurs and advocates to move away from the Budweisers and Millers of the world. Companies like Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, and Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing Company pioneered the way for other brewers around the country to provide regional taste sensations.

The same is just beginning with food. As we have discussed on this blog, locally produced food is getting a lot of attention and is a growing market. Can it continue to become a share of the American pie?

The other lesson from the evolution of liquid bread is the business of it. Before there was refrigeration and modern brewing technology, more people brewed on their own. You will still find a fair amount of enthusiasts, but not nearly the scale that home brewing once was. Now local brewed beer is big business. Like all technologies it allows us to specialize in our own fields and jobs, but still have the luxury of locally brewed beer. Most of us don’t have time to brew our own.

In Bryan Walsh’s Time article, he points out that a lot of the loss of regional food identity is from our modern busy lives.

She looks happy, even serene as she works, but when asked whether she has passed these skills on to her daughter, she sighs. “Of course not,” Shinobu says. “She’s far too busy for this.”

It is neither good or bad that we are loosing some of the domestic skills our parents possessed. Just an evolution of society.

Change is happening in food, albeit slowly. Along with stores, restaurants are offering locally inspired fare. This means regional flavors still have a chance. The meat from farms around Lawrence Kansas should taste different that meat from California. Just like Free State Brewing Company in Lawrence Kansas tastes different from Stone Brewing Company in San Diego. (To the discerning palate anyway) We need to keep a weathered eye on the impacts of the transformation and make eating decisions that are sustainable.

Along with all the positive environmental impacts of eating locally, we should see a revitalization of cultural cuisine.

This should be celebrated, preferably with a toast, as it allows us to have our beer and drink it too.


Photo Courtesy of Whatsontap at Flickr



4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I agree with you completely. Food and drink are such an essential part of our history and culture. There is a great Anthropology course at KU about this. I wrote the following op-ed for Sundance on the topic. As I say below, the loss of food biodiversity is sobering.

One of the smartest questions we can ask ourselves when we try to raise crops is, “What would nature do?”

Nature is diverse and wild and messy. Nature uses its resources efficiently—and tends to cooperate.
Crops that are left to Nature grow in polycultures: groups of different plants that grow together, nourish each other, and protect each other from pests.

But what we usually see are monocultures –endless rows of wheat and corn. Industry likes straight lines because it’s efficient in a different kind of way. One machine can harvest all the crops, the plants require the same nutrients and irrigation, and they can be treated with the same type and quantity of pesticides and fertilizers.

In monocultures one size fits all – plants are harvested, processed and marketed in exactly the same way – so, ultimately, we’re fed in the same way. In the history of human agriculture, about 7000 different species of plants have been grown for food crops. But today, we rely on about 15 plant and 8 animal species for 90% of our food:
* 90% of our eggs come from White Leghorn chickens —
* 70% of our dairy cows are Holsteins –
* and 96% of our peas are from two varieties.

That’s so boring! Nature embraces diversity. When we lose that richness, we aren’t just shortchanging our palates, we’re threatening our livelihoods. Any disease, parasite or climate disruption that could destroy one crop could also destroy the economy it supported – which is sobering food for thought.”

Comment by j500

Luckily, I don’t think Lawrence has lost its beer identity. There’s this brewery downtown called Free State, have you heard of it? I’m kidding of course, but I’m seriously counting down the days until they start brewing Oktoberfest again. And then there’s Boulevard Brewery in Kansas City whose Wheat and Lunar Ale are exceptional.

As far as genetic diversity in crops, it’s not such a happy story. I’ve heard that there are only about four major corn varieties. This makes disease a bigger threat to our food supply.


Comment by bobbygrace

You should definitely check out Chris O’Brien’s book Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World. Unfortunately my microeconomics textbook (which seems to suggest I should drink more Budweiser) has kept me from reading more than a few pages, but so far he’s made a strong and entertaining argument.


Comment by jseverin

On an even scarier note. We as humans have lost our own genetic diversity. Most of the world is very closely related genetically. There are only a handful of “pure” genetically different people left in the world.

Disease is a huge threat to us, not just our food.


Comment by acbowman

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