A broad look at the culinary landscape reveals devastation on many levels — mountains of flavorless chicken breasts harboring multiple varieties of antibiotic-resistant pathogens; boatloads of insipid tomatoes harvested by people making sub-poverty wages and housed in conditions not unlike those of Apartheid-era South Africa; suburban landscapes pockmarked by endless carbon-copy outlets selling such suspect fare.
But the big picture isn’t the only picture. Our food system is actively generating dreadful places, but if you hone in, you’ll also find that all throughout the country, people are creating great places based around food, too. Corporations wield plenty of power in this country, but they don’t control everything. Even as hyper-consolidation of the food industry lurches forward, citizens are creating their own alternatives on the ground.
To illustrate my point, let’s look in an unexpected corner of the culinary world: beer. (Don’t smirk — can there be great places where there isn’t great beer?) By 2004, Anheuser-Busch brewed fully 45 percent of the beer consumed in the U.S. The Budweiser maker and its two largest competitors, Miller SAB and Adolph Coors, controlled about 80 percent of the market. Then, in 2007, Miller and Coors (which had already merged with Canadian beer giant Molson) combined to become MillerCoors. So now just two companies produce eight of every 10 beers consumed here. The product is inferior — they cut beer’s traditional staple ingredient, malted barley, with rice for the express purpose of making the beer bland.
And yet, look what’s happened in the U.S. brew market over the past 30 years:
Chart: Brewers Association
As recently as 1980, fewer than 50 gigantic brew facilities produced all of the beer consumed in the United States. Nearly all of it was horrible. Lovers of good beer were relegated to the tiny import section of the beer case, or to making their own. Today, there are more than 1,700 breweries in operation — we’ve returned to the pre-Prohibition peak (granted, when the U.S. population was much smaller).
What happened? Put simply, a critical mass of people got sick of drinking corporate swill. A home-brew revolution was launched, and some of those home brewers got really good at their craft and opened small breweries. As those small regional breweries flourished, the circle of people who enjoy a good beer widened — drawing more craft brewers into the market. In 1980, the U.S. brew industry was the scandal of the beer world, its products universally scorned by beer aficionados. Today, walk into a bottle shop like Carborro Beverage outside of Chapel Hill, N.C., or Brooklyn’s glorious Bierkraft, and you’ll find dozens and dozens of excellent U.S. beers, representing a dizzying variety of styles. Even as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors continue dominating the overall market and churning out gazillions of gallons of their dismal product, U.S. brewers represent the global avant-garde, providing inspiration to new-wave beer-makers even in countries with strong beer traditions like Belgium and England. Here in the U.S., consumers have more beer choices than ever.
There are a couple of “great places” lessons to be drawn here. First, regionality. Who wants to live in a country where the food and beer is the same wherever you go, as nondescript as a Walmart looming at the edge of a suburban freeway? Our new-wave beer culture is helping revive something that has been eroding for a century in this country: regional identity. When I travel, I can now think in terms of beer-sheds. Here is just a sampling: Stone, Green Flash, and Port in Southern California; Lost Coast, Russian River, and Lagunitas in the north of the state; Bells and Founders in the upper Midwest; Five Points and Brooklyn Brewery in New York City; Highland, Duck Rabbit, and Craggie here in North Carolina; and so on. All of them are world-class breweries, and none of them existed in the pre-1980 Dark Ages. You can now go nearly anywhere in the country and experience a robust and varied local beer culture.
There’s also an economy-related “great places” aspect here. I don’t want to live in a place where a small class of “knowledge workers” flourishes, catered to by a large and de-skilled “service” class that’s barely able to scrape by. In my vision of a great place, economic prosperity is shared broadly, and communities benefit from the presence of skilled artisans producing a variety of things in their midst.
By 1980, the brewer trade had essentially disappeared in the U.S. Production happened at a few mega-breweries, overseen by engineers and staffed by low-skill factory workers. That model still has plenty of momentum, but the brewing revolution has reestablished the brewing trade. Virtually all of the 1,700-plus craft breweries in the U.S. are overseen by a skilled brewer. According to theBrewers Association, the craft brew industry now supports more than 100,000 jobs — none of which would have existed today if everyone had been satisfied with what they were swilling back in 1980.
And we’ve barely tapped the economic potential of de-corporatizing our beer supply. After 30 years of explosive growth, craft beer still represents just 4.9 percent of the U.S. market. In other words, there’s plenty of opportunity for new generations of skilled brewers to ply their trade.
Moreover, craft beer is starting to become more intimately knit into regional agricultural economies. Right now, barley and hops — two of beer’s main ingredients — are grown in mono-cultures concentrated in a few places. Craft breweries in the Northeast typically source these staples on the same commodity markets as those in, say, Southern California. Malting barley requires special facilities and skills — and as the malting industry consolidated right along with the beer business, all of that evaporated. But imagine the economic benefits if barley and hop production were to spread out again. When you enjoyed a pint at your local pub, you’d not only be supporting your neighborhood bartender and brewmaster, but also nearby farmers and workers at the local malthouse.
Just such a vision is coming into place here in North Carolina. In the wake of the 2008 spike in wheat prices, a group of artisanal bakers and farmers launched the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project, designed to reestablish wheat and other grains on the state’s farmland and connect farmers directly with the burgeoning artisanal bakery and craft-brew scene. Such a revival of grain agriculture — for decades concentrated in the Midwest — cannot happen without the very processing infrastructure that has been dismantled over the past half century. This coming fall, the project plans to roll out the state’s second mid-scale flour mill, called Carolina Ground in the western part of state, and it’s partnering with a business called Riverbend Malthouse, which plans to roll out its malting facility this fall, too. Those two facilities will join Lindley Mills, which grinds organic graion into flour in Graham, N.C., near Chapell Hill. In 1980, every dollar you spent on bread or beer essentially leaked out of your state’s economy, supporting a few low-wage jobs but mainly just profits for mega-processors. It’s likely that within a couple of years, every dollar you spend on a good beer or loaf of bread in North Carolina will reverberate through the state’s economy, supporting a range of skilled craftspeople and farmers. As that money circulates through communities, it creates opportunities to support other skilled trades — the brewmaster can afford to shop at the farmers market instead of the chain grocery, and so on. Such models are eminently adaptable to regions across the country.
I’ve focused on beer for this post because I love it and haven’t had much chance to write about it; but I could have settled on any number of sectors within the alternative-food economy. In part one, I complained that the rise of gigantic meat processors had stamped out the butcher trade, once a solidly middle-class and high-skill occupation. Well, the butcher trade, too, is in the midst of a revival, intimately linked to the surge in grass-based, small- and mid-scale meat farming that’s taking place throughout the country. The same, of course, can be said of vegetable farming as we move from relying on vast, water-sucking, labor-exploiting operations in California to far-flung, human-scale farms that provide us with seasonal produce adapted to our own regions.
To me, food is integral to the concept of “great places.” It represents the opportunity to rescue our culinary culture from the clutches of corporate flavor engineers and replace it with something that ties us to landscapes around us and to the skills of our neighbors. Economically, it represents the opportunity to revalue labor, and create economies based on respect and care, not exploitation and the race to the bottom.
There are many obstacles between present reality and my vision of a delicious food future, chief among them the lack of infrastructure — as I’ve written so many times before, including in my very first column as a Grist staffer in 2006. But as the story of craft beer shows, things can change for the better fast — especially when people band together in pursuit of deliciousness.
Former Grist staffer Tom Philpott now writes for Mother Jones.