Activist beer makers deliver politics in a bottle
Politics and alcohol have been intimate friends for centuries. Galvanizing figures from Samuel Adams to Adolf Hitler built their movements in pubs and beer halls long before taking over the halls of power. Even 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was adapted from an old drinking song. Now a growing number of brewers are using beer itself to make a political point.
One such brew is Evolution Amber Ale, from the Wasatch Brewery in Park City, Utah. As state legislators pushed to add 'intelligent design' to the public school science curriculum, Wasatch owner Greg Schirf responded by renaming his award-winning 'Unofficial' Amber Ale, reports Amanda Chesworth in the Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2006). Launched last November, the ale's new label sports a 'Darwin Approved' stamp with the tagline 'created in 27 days, not 7.' A poster for the beer bills it as 'a most intelligently designed ale.'
This is not Schirf's first time brewing up controversy. Earlier, he gained international attention when he tweaked Utah's Mormon population with another Wasatch line dubbed Polygamy Porter. 'Why have just one?' the label asks.
Montreal culture jammers Rob Maguire and Ezra Winton are taking a different tack. Last fall, the cofounders of the anticorporate activist collective berculture began sharing their recipe for berbr, an all-natural hemp ale, with Canadian microbrewers as a way of spreading a message and funding their work.
'People now recognize that when you buy a cup of coffee there are international economic and political connections,' Maguire told This Magazine (March/April 2006). 'For us, beer is no different. We want to take the whole concept of fair trade coffee and apply it to beer.' To support local enterprise and cut down on pollution from shipping, Maguire and Winton want berbr to be made locally, from mostly local ingredients, wherever it is sold.
Two microbreweries in Montreal and Vancouver are making the 'uncorporate' beer, and about a dozen bars and caf?s are selling it. The profits are split with berculture, which produces political documentaries and film festivals, and campaigns against corporate giants like Wal-Mart. Like open-source software code, the ale's recipe is free for anyone to use and modify, so long as users in turn share any changes.
?berbr isn't the world's only open-source beer, nor is it the first. That title is claimed by Vores ?l (Our Beer), a meaty brew with a caffeine boost from South American guarana beans. The beer was created last year by a group of students at Copenhagen's IT University in a workshop on copyright and intellectual property taught by artist Rasmus Nielsen. The project applies the logic behind open-source software, which flouts Microsoft's corporate hegemony by tapping the creativity of the masses to design ever-evolving programs like the Linux operating system. 'Why not take the legal framework, the open-source licenses, and apply them to analog products?' Nielsen asked in a Wired News report (July 18, 2005).
Advocates of open-source software, also known as 'free software,' have long used the analogy 'free as in 'free speech,' not as in 'free beer' ' to illustrate the difference between liberty and price. A truly free beer, Nielsen and his students thought, might drive the movement's point home. 'You're free to change it,' Nielsen told the BBC (July 28, 2005). 'But if you use our recipe as the basis for your beer, you have to be open with your recipe as well.'
'In an industry where commercial brewers guard their secret recipes as tightly as Microsoft guards its proprietary software code, these student activists hope that Vores ?l 'becomes the Linux of beers.'