The following is an excerpt from Sustainable Food: How to Buy Right and Spend Less by Elise McDonough. It has been adapted for the Web.
Beer, wine, and spirits enjoy a history with humankind that’s as long as agriculture itself. Valued as a way to preserve and store harvests (not to mention cop a buzz), every culture in the world has its own traditional fermented brews, from sake (rice wine) in Japan to chicha (corn beer) in South America. Even during our hunting-and-gathering days, humans enjoyed the miracle of fermented honey, known as mead—the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage.
Next time you sit down to enjoy a healthy meal featuring whole grains, organic beans, and local veggies, reward yourself by washing it all down with a glass of organic or local beer or wine. Red wine has a remarkable amount of antioxidants, and drinking alcohol in moderation (no more than two drinks per day!) contributes to better heart health. The main environmental issues to consider with beer, wine, and spirits are the same as with other foods: how and where were they produced? Strict vegetarians and vegans should also know that certain beers and wines use animal products as clarifying agents in the fermentation process.
After more than a thousand years of traditional brewing, the ingredients used to create high-quality beer remain relatively simple: water, hops, malted barley, and yeast. Replace barley with wheat and you get Hefeweizen, or “white” (wit) beers. Also, keep in mind that national, corporate brands like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller use adjuncts like corn and rice, resulting in light-colored, watery beers with a lower alcohol content and little taste.
Fortunately, America’s once proud tradition of regional and local breweries has been experiencing a major renaissance, which means you can easily find a favorite beer that’s brewed close to home, including often an organic brand. Organic beers fall under the same rules that govern organic food production, so any six-pack bearing the familiar USDA seal signifies that the brew is made of organic hops and grain. However, owing to smaller consumer demand for organic beers, the hops and barley used may have been imported from New Zealand, Germany, or elsewhere overseas, resulting in a somewhat less “local” libation.
Conventional cultivation of hops often includes a heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers and high levels of fungicides because of the plant’s susceptibility to downy mildew. More than 70 percent of U.S. hops are grown in Washington’s Yakima Valley, an important watershed for endangered wild salmon, so reducing harmful chemical runoff is a worthwhile goal supported by your organic beer purchases.
Whether you imbibe locally, organically, or both, give thanks that conscientious consumers now have a choice that reflects their values. The microbrewery revolution that began in the 1980s, along with the success of organic foods, proves that when given an option, people will choose a unique, high-quality experience of food and drink that reflects the culture of where they live. Local beers also help improve your “food mileage,” since quaffing the output of your neighborhood microbrewery reduces the need for trucking heavy beer bottles and kegs. Many small breweries also make use of “growlers,” reusable glass jugs that can be filled up by loyal customers again and again, often at a more affordable price than six-packs.
If you consistently drink beer at home, especially in a shared house with several roommates, consider buying or building your own “kegerator,” a customized fridge that keeps a barrel cold, with taps built in to dispense perfect pints. Using kegs saves money, and it also eliminates the need to manufacture and recycle a new glass bottle for every twelve ounces of beer.
Creative, economical people should also try brewing their own beer or making their own wine or hard cider. It’s not as hard as you think, and there’s nothing more local!