Thursday, February 2, 2012

Small Beer & Small Minds

Most people are familiar with the bumper sticker: Beer: it's not just for breakfast anymore

While most folks connect the humor dots in that one-liner by laughing at the absurdity of starting the day with Budweiser, there are deeper waters here.
As near as anthropologists can tell, beer (or some version of fermented beverage based on locally available materials: perhaps wine, cider, or mead) exists wherever grain is cultivated, and is second only to water as a universally consumed drink among human cultures.

In medieval life it was common to drink beer at every meal. That said, much of it was weak in alcohol (no sense in having the family get ripped before cows were milked, fields hoed, or trees hewn), from whence the term "small beer." It was probably what the small fry drank whenever ale was served. (The concept of a legal drinking age is strictly a modern phenomenon; in medieval households parents were far more concerned with getting the
wool carded, not the kids.) Small beer was likely what everyone drank when they had work to do afterwards requiring focus and dexterity.

Interestingly, in British culture, small beer has taken on the additional meaning of someone or something of little consequence.

Let's move along the timeline now from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. It wasn't that long ago (in the course of human events) that factory workers were given beer breaks to break up the drudgery (and perhaps to promote docility). In fact, when unions came on the scene, it wasn't uncommon for access to beer to be written into their contracts. Yes, there was a time when drinking on the job was considered normal, and the employer supplied the suds. If you're thinking that died out with the advent of the horseless carriage, think again. At the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark, drinking on the job wasn't curtailed until April 2010 (over strenuous union objections).

I enjoyed a latter day variation of this quaint practice in the early days of the Berkshire Brewing Company (in South Deerfield MA). For the first decade or so of their existence, they invited volunteers to show up for bottling shifts every Monday and Friday, compensating them with a case of anything they brewed, plus all the beer they cared to drink from 10 am onward. If the shift lasted well into the afternoon it was a challenge driving home safely. While this custom was phased out circa 2005 (when the brewery got successful enough to hire bottling crews), I have fond memories of a handful of Fridays volunteering at the brewery when my travels took me through western Massachusetts.

30 Days
Ma'ikwe's community, Dancing Rabbit, was featured on a 2005 episode of 30 Days, a reality television program created by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame). A couple from Manhattan (the one in New York, not Kansas) lived for a month in a rural ecovillage while Spurlock's crew filmed the cultural juxtaposition.

My version of a one-month documentary involved walking over to Sandhill yesterday (to file our annual sales tax report with the state of Missouri). Because I had made regular trips to Sandhill to cover FIC office shifts over the holidays (filling in for Emily while she was vacationing with her family back East), I knew that the highway glass, plastic, and aluminum along the three miles from DR to SH had been fairly well picked up as of Jan 2—I know because I did it myself. (For previous ruminations about highway trash, see my
April 2009 blog: No MO Trash.)

Thus, 30 days later, I was curious to see what I would find walking the same route. The results were depressing:
—4 glass bottles (three Pepsis and a Silver Bullet)
—23 plastic bottles (mostly soda, but there was one polyethylene pint of Canadian Mist)
—41 aluminum cans

Of the cans, a majority were either Bud Light or Miller Lite, which got me thinking. The calorie content of Bud Light is 110 per can. For Miller Lite it's 96. In obeisance to a culture that's obsessed with obesity, I observe that breweries (at least the big boys) are constantly striving for malt offerings with fewer and fewer calories while still producing something that still tastes like beer. Miller, for example, now holds the pole position in this race with Miller Genuine Draft Lite, which manages to squeeze into a svelte size 64 (calories per 12 oz serving).

As the proliferation of light beer continues and the presence of highway litter persists, I wonder if there's a direct relationship between the low calorie count per can and the IQ of the consumer. I figure light beer is essentially the commercial equivalent of small beer, and I'm positing that the consumers of small beer tend to be, well, small beer.

What are these people thinking?? Mind you, I can understand how a person who loves beer wouldn't want the beverage to go their waistline, but couldn't they couple that with a determination to not have the container go into their waste line (trailing behind their vehicle)?

Think about it. I was only collecting the recyclables along a three-mile stretch of seldom-used byway in the middle of winter: two miles of which are gravel; one mile of which is paved. While there's no doubt some of what I collected yesterday was there Jan 2 (you never get it all), the vast majority of what I plucked from the grassy shoulders were fresh deposits: a total of 68 pieces—all of which could have easily been recycled. People took the effort to open a window on a cold day to indulge in the ultimate act of NIMBY mindlessness. It's like children who hope they won't be seen if they close their eyes (if that empty can is out of my sight, then—voila!—it's taken care of). Oy.

• • •
I love beer. While most people report having to get through a period of initial distaste when consuming it for the first time, I liked it immediately—starting with the first can I drank during an unsupervised moment at a neighborhood block party at age 10.

Ben Franklin is reputed to have written: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to happy." While there is apparently some dispute as to Franklin's authorship of this line, I'd drink to the sentiment at the bottom of it at any time. What I won't drink to is all the sediment that careless imbibers are leaving as residue along our roadsides. This level of irresponsibility is more than small beer to me.

No comments: