I used to hate beer. Most Americans experience beer and alcoholic beverages as a rite of passage into adulthood, but I refused to follow the crowd. Despite their fowl taste, most of us are introduced to beer through the cheapest, most processed versions available. I remember someone once explaining to me a kind of golden rule to appreciating (bad) beer, in an attempt to get me started: after ten cans the foul taste will go away! Even hardcore vegetarians and vegans can be found making exceptions for these beers, many of which contain animal products like bone, bladder, and dried blood. But I wanted nothing to do with them.
Then I moved to Portland, Oregon.
The wet city in the Pacific Northwest contains more brewpubs per-capita than anywhere else in the world, even Germany. I was surrounded by exotic Scotch Ales and fruity Lamics. It wasn’t long until I was trying beers left and right and attending such world-class beer events as the Oregon Brewers Festival and the Holiday Ale Festival. So then with so many great beers out there, why did it take me so long to find them?
Last year’s documentary film, Beer Wars, answers my question with a sobering story. Through an inside glimpse into the beer industry, the film illuminates how the giants of the market reinforce their dominance and squelch micro brewers using every tactic available. Distribution companies and grocery stores are manipulated to ensure that the smaller companies have little to no room in the trucks or on the shelves. We watch as the humble brewmaster of microbrewery Dogfish Head is served with litigation from Anheuser-Busch. Even though the suit is bogus, it is obvious that the corporation is aiming to simply bankrupt the little guys in legal fees. Why? Because they can.
It doesn’t stop there. The film reveals how the beer giants are consolidating to become monolithic in size. Miller and Coors have joined to become MillerCoors while Anheuser-Busch was bought out by international giant InBev to create Anheuser-Busch InBev and become the largest beer company in the world. To round out their brand identity they’ve also created fake craft beers under dummy names (like the Blue Moon Brewing Company) to compete with the microbreweries, fooling even the beer snobs. The mass shooting in Connecticut earlier this month took place at a beer distributor that had recently experienced consolidation.
Even more frightening is the surprising number of independent beers that have come under the control of the beer giants. One of these is Belgium’s Hoegaarden, produced in the village of the same name for hundreds of years. The “interesting facts” section of parent company Anheuser-Busch’s website proudly states that “Brewing has been an integral part of life in the village of Hoegaarden, Belgium, since 1318.”
The real interesting fact left out of their description is that in 2005, InBev (who had already acquired Hoegaarden) announced the closure their brewery in Hoegaarden, moving its production to a larger brewery in another city. Village residents and officials immediately took to the streets in a mass demonstration against the closure. Soon thereafter, InBev employees nationwide held a march and strike in response to similar closures and general outsourcing. In the end, InBev discovered that, low and behold, beer tastes different depending on where it is brewed and could not match the original flavor, forcing them to keep Hoegaarden in Hoegaarden.
Yet a recent Alternet article claims that all is not lost. Microbreweries are on the rise. And in the United States they’re growing beyond beer hubs like Portland and showing up on the shelves of local markets and on tap at bars who care about their beer.
But better yet, we can do it ourselves. Coming up.. Part 2: Home brewing!