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% 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 homogenization.

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.

African Traditions

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% 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 become 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 globalization.

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.

Effervescent Growth

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 and 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 for independence. George Washington himself devised strategies for the brewing industry to help loose the yolk of Britain’s economic enslavement.

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.

The Return of T’ej

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 benefits.

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 French 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 prices.

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% 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 occasions.

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.

Brewing Solutions

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 costs.

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 eliminated.

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 serve 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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