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Have a beer with… Beer Activist Chris O’Brien

What does beer have to do with saving the world? More than you think. I recently sat down with local beer activist and sustainability expert Chris O’Brien to discuss drinking beer and saving the world. Chris is the Director of Sustainability at American University and author of  Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World (Giveaway!! Comment on this post by Nov. 30th for your chance to win a copy of Fermenting Revolution. A random drawing will be held on Dec. 1st.)

Chris O'Brien, Organic Brewing Activist

Andrew: Tell me more about your role at American University.

Chris O’Brien: My role is in planning, implementing, tracking and communicating about all our efforts to be sustainable. Being sustainable means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In practical terms, that means we are charting a course to be zero waste and zero emissions.

Andrew: Rarely does one’s full time job relate closely to the hobby of homebrewing, but with you, they easily go hand and hand. Which interest came first, homebrewing or sustainability?

Chris O’Brien: They do go hand in hand. I started home brewing when I was a grad student at RPI in Troy, New York. I reviewed my personal finances and saw that most of my discretionary spending went to beer. Since I didn’t want to drink less, I decided I should drink cheaper, but I was already drinking really cheap beer. I found out homebrewing was even cheaper, and it immediately clicked with my interest in sustainability. Everything about homebrewing reflects what I value – it’s more personal, allows for creativity and independence, but at the same time, builds community.

Andrew: Are there any commercial brewers incorporating sustainability efforts and organic brewing into their operation?

Chris O’Brien: Sierra Nevada is a leader. They grow organic hops right at the brewery and are entirely powered with renewable energy produced on-site — mostly from solar photovoltaic arrays. They are fairly modest about the whole thing, but in fact, they should be bragging — or at least using their efforts as an opportunity for educating their customers. New Belgium does a lot more of that. Great Lakes Brewing  in Cleveland also does a lot. Otter Creek produces America’s first national line of organic beers, Wolavers. Organic ingredients are very important in sustainability. As a beer drinker, ask yourself if you want pesticides in your beer? Then drink some award winning organic beers, like New Belgium’s Mothership Wit. I rest my case. Not only does organic beer not contain petroleum-derived chemical pesticides, but it can be better-tasting than any beer that uses conventional ingredients.

Andrew: Are brewers behind the curve in terms of where organic food is now? Compared to how its popularity has grown so much just in the past several years, are brewers headed in the same direction?

Chris O’Brien: Absolutely [they are headed in the same direction-ed.]. And I wouldn’t say they are behind the organic curve exactly, more like right on the curve. Brewers have also been innovating sustainability in many other ways: energy efficiency, water efficiency and waste reuse.

Andrew: What do you think about the beer culture in DC ?

Chris O’Brien: In terms of sophistication, it’s been getting better and better over the last few years. It still needs lots more corner bars though. Places with local character.

Andrew: Do you think the lack of corner bars is due to the government and how people are always in and out of DC ?

Chris O’Brien: Hmm, I’m not so sure that’s it. The population turnover in the DC area isn’t nearly as high as people think it is. Most government workers are career types – they live here their whole lives.

People just aren’t socialized to visit their local watering hole in the evening. They go home and drink their beer watching T.V. I’m as guilty as anyone. Though I often wish I was socializing for an hour or two each weeknight instead of being at home on the couch. That’s why we need good corner bars. Places where conversation is enabled rather than discouraged by loud TVs and music. I can watch TV and crank up the stereo at home. Not that I mind having loud music at bars…just not every night. I’m actually a loud music fan. I have about 1,000 punk rock records. But I want to socialize in a bar.

Andrew: For any of our readers that might be considering homebrewing, what advice do you have to offer?

Chris O’Brien:
Beer is a social beverage. Homebrew takes the social nature of beer to the level where it belongs. Start making beer and I guarantee your social life will improve. Beer is also best at its freshest. There is no fresher beer than a homebrew (or a draft craft brew at a brewpub). And finally, making beer is a more active, creative experience than purchasing beer will ever be. It’s the difference between going for takeout food and making food in the kitchen. Which one is more fun?

For more information about Chris, visit his site at beeractivist.com. Chris is also a part owner of Seven Bridges Home Brew Store – the only all-organic homebrew supply company in the world. Mention Chris’s name and DCBeer.com to receive 10% off your first order.

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