In a town full of unabashed beer nuts, Kevin Christensen is surely among the nuttiest and unabashed-est. He started drinking beer at twelve — "I was sort of a juvenile delinquent," he says now, but it's hard to believe him — and had his first foray into home-brewing almost twenty years ago, with the guidance of a professor and, somehow, under the auspices of the sociology club at what sounds like the world's coolest liberal-arts college. After moving to Oakland, he set up a fairly expansive homebrew rig at his Cleveland Heights home, a sprawling, vaguely Seussian series of tubes and pipes and vessels of various sizes and shapes. He has now made more than two hundred gallons of beer, which he distributes from his garage to friends and neighbors.
Two or three years ago, he started researching the business of beer, largely out of curiosity. A union organizer by day, he's fascinated by the way corporate culture affects people — and he found that despite the craft beer movement's good standing among locavores, malt, a key component in beer, is still produced far away by a handful of mega-corporations.
"I was kind of looking around at what was going on with the craft brewing industry, and although there's a lot of smaller craft brewing companies, if you look into the supply — where the malt comes from — it's overwhelmingly this huge consolidated industry," Christensen said.
It's mostly an economies-of-scale thing: Malting equipment is expensive, the process is time-consuming, and the competition is steep. There are only a handful of micro-malting companies in the United States, and the largest of those churn out at most a couple hundred tons of malt every year — a miniscule fraction of what the big guys can do in a single day.
Those companies — Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Great Western, and a few others — buy barley by the ton from massive farms in the Midwest and Rockies, process it in huge, highly mechanized factories, and ship it to beer companies large and small nationwide. (By the way: Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland were sued by the International Labor Rights Fund in 2005 for human-rights violations in Africa, and have recently come under fire for using deforested Amazonian land to farm soy. Cargill is also now the most profitable privately held corporation in the United States.) Call it the beer-industrial complex, or, at the very least, another example of the wide reach of industrial agriculture — even to corners of the market that are ostensibly small-scale.
"One of the things that's so great about craft beer is it's an example of localism," Christensen told me over IPAs last Friday on Beer Revolution's front patio. "But when you dig a little deeper, it's actually all coming from these big corporations, and it's missing the link to local agriculture."
This can be troublesome on a number of fronts. "One of the problems with corporate farm culture is that it's so uniform — it's monoculture," Christensen said. Unless you're a huge company, you have little control over your malt — which gives beer much of its flavor and color — beyond the most basic delineations. Christensen explains it like an economist: "Think of it like the coffee market, before specialty coffee, back when it was just Maxwell House and Folger's, and that's just what you got. It's a commodity."
But just as the coffee market grew up and out, so, Christensen hopes, will the market for malt. (Call it the slow-beer movement.) In a region as obsessed with localism as it is with beer, it should be a no-brainer — especially for Christensen, who possesses the perfect mix of beer-snob perfectionism, political know-how, and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic to make it happen.
The plan right now is to work with local farmers and breweries to create a micro-malting and brewing company — or, in Christensen's charmingly wonkish description, to try to figure out "How do you connect regional agriculture to regional beer in a multi-stakeholder economic structure? How do you develop something that's sort of a unique specialty malt, that takes into account local California culture? And how do you make it so you're doing something for the local environment and creating jobs for people?"
His aim is ambitious, and maybe a long way off. Right now, Christensen is doing lots of research (on the day we met he was carting around a hardback reference book with detailed scientific illustrations of barley plants and malting rigs) and making lots of beer. He hopes to have the whole thing set up by next summer, and has already started filing the necessary paperwork. It'll be worker-owned and -operated, of course, and he's calling it Trautmann's Malting and Brewing, after William Trautmann, one of the founding members of the IWW — and a brewmaster.