By Scott Carlson
From the sizes and shapes of the bottles laid out on Chris O’Brien’s table, I could tell that my head was going to feel like a wrung-out sponge in the morning. There was the “Beer of the Gods,” by the High & Mighty Beer Co. of Massachusetts; a couple of bottles of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, made by a “gypsy brewer” in Baltimore; a rare bottle of Brooklyn Black Ops, a stout aged in bourbon barrels that weighs in at 11.3 percent alcohol; and assorted others—cidery or hoppy or made with green peppercorns.
Mr. O’Brien, of American University, was undaunted. “Oh, nice!” he said, standing in the dining room of his Victorian house in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood as each new bottle was pulled from its liquor-store bag. Mr. O’Brien also offered his own selections: a red plastic cooler full of unlabeled bottles—entries in an organic-brewing contest, put on by a brewing-supply company of which he is part owner.
As a beer enthusiast, Mr. O’Brien comes with some uncommon credentials. In his little corner of higher education, he is known for his day job as American’s sustainability director. But he may be more widely known as the “Beer Activist”—a fellow who insists that you can save the world by drinking better beer.
A few years ago, he laid out his vision in Fermenting Revolution, a book that was a beer history, a manifesto, and a record of the weird and wonderful in the modern craft-brewing scene. Fermenting Revolution is now being made into an audio book, and Mr. O’Brien will be a speaker at green festivals this year, encouraging people to get back to basics by brewing their own.
“Beer is a metaphor for sustainability,” he said as we were popping caps off bottles. In the years since home brewing was legalized, in 1979, the craft-beer movement has exploded, and beers of that kind often support pillars of sustainability ethics: reliance on local ingredients and labor, a regard for community values, and a love of the artistry and authenticity of the brewing process. They stand in opposition to bland, industrially produced beers, whose giant marketing campaigns—long based on leggy women and sports stars—reduce the beer to mere commodity and the drinker to mere consumer. Colleges and, yes, even students might learn something about sustainability through beer—that is, if we weren’t so uptight about it.
“What I really love about the craft-brewing and home-brewing movements is that they are sustainability movements without intending to be,” Mr. O’Brien said. For a parallel, he pointed to the wood-pellet burner that was heating the room on this winter day. “People like sitting by a fire, and we’re having a nicer time using a sustainable fuel. Beer was the same thing—we didn’t want a product that treats us like idiots.”
We poured a beer and walked around the house, which Mr. O’Brien and his partner, Seung-hee F. Lee, operate as a bed-and-breakfast and also use as a kind of miniature laboratory for sustainable living. Inside, he is experimenting with various energy-saving light bulbs and remote-controlled gizmos that cut off power to devices when they aren’t being used. In the bathroom, he showed off a spray bottle of green liquid that he picked up at a trade show; called “GoFlushless” and redolent of 7-Up, the product claims to mask urine smells and reduce flushing by a ridiculously specific 87 percent. A magazine rack stuffed with back issues of BeerAdvocate sat next to the toilet.
Outside, Mr. O’Brien and Ms. Lee had hung 23 kilowatts worth of solar panels on the roof—more than the house uses. They had set up rain barrels, a bat house, and landscaping to prevent runoff. And on the south side, they had set up trellises for hop bines. “Next year they will grow up the side of the house and help shade the house a little bit, which will improve energy efficiency—and we’ll be growing hops,” Mr. O’Brien said.
He has had a homegrown and anti-authoritarian attitude about beer since college, when he brewed his first batch as part of a class project at Pennsylvania State University. “The idea was to reclaim this product from the corporations and bring it down to the kitchen,” he said.
He continued honing his home-brewing skills through college and graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he was in the science-and-technology-studies program. But when he bought beer, he bought the cheap stuff, to identify with the working class.
His view of professional craft brewers changed after he moved to Washington in 1997 for a job with an environmental organization that promoted green businesses. One night at a bar, a friend bought him a Hop Pocket Ale, by the well-known mid-Atlantic brewer Bob Tupper, and he was blown away as much by the beer as by the story behind it: It was locally brewed, with some profits given to charity. The brew revolution was basically a green movement, happening in a grass-roots way. Mr. O’Brien was determined to write about it.
He got his chance after Ms. Lee got a job in Africa and he quit his job and followed her there. In Eshowe, South Africa, he met the owner of a hotel who was having trouble running the on-site brewery. Mr. O’Brien offered to work as the brewer in exchange for lodging, food, access to the Internet, and use of a car. “I got to learn how to brew professionally for customers who were immediate and critical,” he said. “They were sitting on the other side of the bar, and they told me what they thought.”
He also traveled around the continent, studying the traditional home brewing done by African women as a source of nutrition, entertainment, and income. Despite their skill at making low-alcohol beers from ingredients they grew outside their doors, a skill passed from mother to daughter for generations, many of the women he met were ashamed of their traditional brewing—an attitude that Mr. O’Brien traces to the Western colonizers’ mixed feelings about alcohol. It’s an attitude Americans struggle with, too.
Which is odd, Mr. O’Brien said, given our 10,000-year history of the drink. In his book, he posits that a thirst for beer might have been the urge that prodded us to settle down and create civilization, and that a common drink like beer, not wine, might have been the stuff that Jesus actually drank at the Last Supper.
“Most people, when I tell them that I wrote a book about beer and sustainability, their reaction is, ‘That’s funny,’ ” he said. “We are still so uncomfortable with alcohol that talking about it in a serious tone doesn’t exist. Either you are demonizing it, which doesn’t take it seriously, or you are laughing about it, which doesn’t take seriously its pros and cons as a normal part of life.”
Our grudging tolerance of alcohol is a hangover from Prohibition, Mr. O’Brien said. But it was the pressures of industrialization—men under stress, working long hours far from the moderating effect of their families, with access to high-proof liquor—that led to widespread drinking problems, not alcohol’s inherent vice, he argued.
People under stress, far from families, with access to alcohol—that sounds a bit like college campuses, which of course have their own struggles with student drinking. Given the enthusiasm for sustainability, local food production, and alcohol at colleges, he thinks it would be nice if more of them looked to craft brewing as a way to teach students about local businesses and green living. In fact, a faculty member at American University recently came to Mr. O’Brien wondering about the possibility of putting a brew pub in one of the buildings. But Mr. O’Brien doesn’t see it happening.
“With sustainability in general, you try to make progress where there is opportunity,” he said. “I don’t see there being an opportunity with any of the schools in the Washington area to build a brew pub. I don’t think we’re comfortable enough with alcohol to do that.”
The evening wore on, and we followed Mr. O’Brien’s favorite dictum from Michael Jackson, a great British beer critic: “Drink beer and digress.” We talked about our church upbringings and subsequent falling out, pirate radio stations and punk rock, the decline of The Washington Post.
But Mr. O’Brien always had a way of circling back to one topic. At one point he was talking about the commodification of the media and cable news—how they’re focused on selling something rather than creating a community. Miller and Budweiser did that, too, and people started finding other beers to consume.
“It’s just like beer,” he said. “It all comes back to beer.”