Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 14, 2008

Beer Issues:

It’s Hops, It’s Barley, It’s A Meal

The legacy of Earl Butz and the industrialization of what we eat and drink.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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A little over a week ago, a guy by the name of Earl Butz died at the age of 98. You may have heard of him, even though, no, he is not the less famous brother of Seymour. Earl Butz was a secretary of agriculture in the Nixon administration during the first half of the ’70s. He liked to be called “Rusty.” He also liked to tell obscene, racist jokes in cabinet meetings, which led to him getting his ass canned in 1976. But his greatest legacy has been the revolutionizing of American agriculture from a system of local economies based on small, family-owned farms, to the commoditization and industrialization of the nation’s food industry.

In the early ’70s the United States faced a crisis of sorts—at least in political terms: sky-high food prices due to a corn shortage. (Sound familiar?) The solution that Butz, the “Sage of Purdue” (that’s right, he was a Midwestern boy) came up with was his most famous non-obscene declarations: farmers had to “adapt or die,” or, in other words, “get big or get out” and plant corn “fencerow to fencerow.” This eventually led to a massive surplus in corn, which, of course, drove the price lower than the hopping rate of a Bud Light. The ripple effect of all this can be seen throughout the last 35 years: vanishing family farms, devastated foreign and rural economies, polluted water, degraded land, high fructose corn syrup, the American obesity epidemic, and the horrors of Bud Dry.

Oh, and many of Earl Butz’s friends and colleagues who had dealings with companies such as Cargill, Archer-Daniels Midland, Purina (on whose board of directors Butz sat—no pun intended), and Coca-Cola got unspeakably wealthy. Funny how stuff like that happens.

In fact, you could argue that Butz’s legacy wasn’t so much the transformation of American agriculture as it was an object lesson as to why we shouldn’t commoditize agricultural products or industrialize the food supply. Sure, food is cheaper, but we’re putting this stuff into our bodies! Two things happen when you industrialize food. First, it tastes like shit—hence all the extra sugar, fat, and salt. Second, it is really, really bad for our health. If you don’t agree with me, then go on an all-Twinkie diet for a year or two. I just hope I don’t have the same insurance plan as you do.

So, what does all this have to do with beer?

Some folks may disagree with me, but beer—craft-brewed beer—is food. It’s got protein, it’s got fiber, it’s got vitamins, and it’s got minerals. And we put it into our bodies. I’m not going to try to blame the industrialization of beer on Rusty—that deed had been done decades before he told his first racist joke—but his death is a good reminder to examine our history to avoid future mistakes. It’s vitally important that we pay attention to what we put into our bodies, especially when it comes to beer. And because it’s food, beer is not something that should be commodotized and industrialized. It isn’t a paper plate or a pair of pants or a widget. It’s beer. It’s importance transcends mere financial labels and business buzzwords.

You can find comparisons in the hops and barley shortages with the corn shortage of the early ’70s, making the folly of Earl Butz extremely relevant. As the price of beer has risen due to these shortages, I’ve heard and read folks bitching about the price of a six pack of craft beer. All you have to ask yourself is this: what would I rather have, a $9.99 six pack of Alpha King or Oberon or Spotted Cow … or no craft beer at all?

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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