What the Home-Brew Movement Can Teach Us About Emerging Technologies

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Feb. 23 2012 6:30 AM

What Beer Can Teach Us About Emerging Technologies

The home-brew movement serves as a lesson in DIY innovation.

Make your own beer? Yes, you can.
Make your own beer? Yes, you can.

Photo by Zoonar.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Feb. 29, Future Tense will host an event on the Make movement and do-it-yourself innovation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)

The oldest persisting food purity law in the world is the German Reinheitsgebot.* In April 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV and Duke Ludwig X of Bavaria decreed that the only ingredients to be used in making lager were water, barley, and hops. (It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that Louis Pasteur discovered the crucial role of yeast in fermenting sugars into ethanol.)

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While this law ensured the quality, tradition, and purity of beer in Germany, it also stifled experimentation and innovation by prohibiting brewers from testing other ingredients. The Belgian monks, by contrast, were free to develop complex and innovative beer styles during the last few centuries by adding fruits, spices, wild yeast and bacteria, and other cereal grains, like wheat, to their ales. This experimental spirit has been embraced by today’s do-it-yourself home brewers and craft brewers in the United States, which is currently regarded as the most innovative and exciting country for craft beer.

“Beer goggles” are considered a terrible thing, especially on college campuses. But I believe beer is the perfect lens through which to examine innovation, which is why I teach a senior capstone course at Arizona State University called the Cultural and Chemical History of Beer. We tour breweries and host famous brewmasters. We attend events like the various local Oktoberfests and the traveling “Tour de Fat” and the Arizona Strong Beer Festival.

We also make beer. Ironically, ASU is a dry campus, so we must meet elsewhere to brew: local parks, private homes, and the alley behind the local home-brew shop, Brewer’s Connection. Students receive course credit for making beer at home (if they are at least 21 and live off-campus). They learn how to calculate alcohol content by measuring the difference in the specific gravity of the wort (the liquid prior to yeast addition) and their beer after fermentation. Some students add exotic fruits to their wort, experiment with different adjuncts, temperatures, spices, and herbs, and some even cook and bake with their beer. One made a blood-orange wheat beer; another soaked charred oak chips in bourbon, then added them to his Russian Imperial Stout to simulate the barrel-aging process. With few exceptions, students' beers come out surprisingly well.

Less than two generations ago, these DIY activities were illegal in the United States. Despite the fact that the founding mothers and fathers of America (and their children) made and drank their own beer, cider, and wine daily, from the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, until 1978 it was against the law to make beer in the land of the free. President Carter legalized home brewing in 1979 in the amount of 100 gallons per year per adult (up to 200 gallons per year per household), reserving the rights of further restriction to the states. Home brewing is still illegal in Mississippi and Alabama. (For recent Alabama congressional debate, see the Northern Brewer.)

The effect of the ban on home brewing in the United States had far-reaching consequences. While there were nearly 1,500 breweries prior to the 18th Amendment, after 1960 there were only a handful of giant, consolidated mega-brewers. Today, the “big two”—Anheuser-Busch (bought by Europe’s Inbev for $52 billion in 2008) and MillerCoors—sell 95 percent of all beer in the United States in the form of lager and light lager, according to the 2009 documentary Beer Wars.

Since the legalization of home brewing in 1979, however, the number of craft breweries has grown to more than 1,800, most of which were founded by DIY home brewers. Tens of thousands of DIYers now brew across the United States. The American Homebrewers Association boasts a roster of 27,000 paying members ($38 per year; $600 lifetime).

We can learn several crucial lessons from this diverse, creative group, and that understanding will allow us to encourage innovation. For some, the main impetus for DIY is that it provides an outlet from their daily grind: Many employees suffer the life of the cubicle-bound "knowledge worker." In his best-selling Shop Class As Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford argues that the elimination of industrial arts and home economics classes from public school curricula has left us dependent on machines that we don’t understand and frustrated by the outsourcing and off-shoring of production. We also derive little satisfaction from what we “produce” at work. We’ve become a nation of shoppers and consumers. DIY is a way to engage the physical things around us and create durable (and drinkable) objects. Based on informal conversations with other DIYers, some of these motivations include self-reliance, community-building, autonomy, independence from monopolies, an alternative to rampant consumerism, innate curiosity, and the desire to make something cool.

I grew up watching MacGyver, whose titular hero we could consider the mascot of the DIY movement for his ability to craft unorthodox solutions using whatever materials are at hand. While most brewers are not primarily concerned with defeating threats to world peace and justice, MacGyver’s spirit of bricolage (recombining and repurposing whatever happens to be lying around) is pervasive in the home-brew community. Home brewers experiment with ingredients and processes, but they also design and fabricate their own equipment. Beer can be made on a stovetop or in a customized, handmade, arduino-controlled, fully automatic, trailer-mounted “brew sculpture.” Most all-grain brewers make their own “mash tun” (steeping vessel) out of picnic coolers, copper pipe, and various hoses and valves from the hardware store. Many convert commercial beer kegs into boil kettles that they perch atop turkey fryers (all of which are available dirt-cheap on Craigslist). The old soda kegs that have been phased out by the soft drink industry make for excellent home-brew equipment. Bricolage is important as we face the limits of our landfills because it allows us to reclaim, reuse, and repurpose materials that are otherwise destined to decay.

Home brewing is part of a broad spectrum of DIY activities including amateur astronomy, backyard biodiesel brewing, experimental architecture, open-source 3-D printing, even urban farming. (My pet chickens Pepper and Fanny eat my spent beer grains and, in turn, feed me breakfast.) Many of these pastimes can lead to new ideas, processes, and apparatus that might not otherwise exist. Depending on your hobby and your town, these activities can be officially encouraged, discouraged, unregulated, or illegal. For example, it’s illegal to make biodiesel fuel at home in the city of Phoenix (a simple process in which waste vegetable oil is mixed with methyl alcohol into which lye has been dissolved) but not regulated in the bordering towns of Scottsdale, Chandler, or Tempe (where I make mine). Based on its zoning laws, Phoenix considers the process “industrial” and therefore prohibited in residential areas while the other cities do not. If making biodiesel were legal and encouraged, the reduction in exhaust emissions and diversion of grease from sewers and landfills could help clean up the “brown cloud” of smog in the Valley of the Sun.

We need more sensible policy like the legalization of home brewing beer. It's unlikely that we'll be able to successfully shop and consume our way into the best future, but we can make it brighter by encouraging DIY.

Dave Conz is an assistant research professor at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and a lecturer in interdisciplinary studies in the School of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University. 

Correction, Feb. 26, 2012: This article originally misspelled Reinheitsgebot, the 16th-century German food-purity law. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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