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How Beer Saved the World - DVD review

Did beer really save the world?

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


How Beer Saved the World - DVD review
Remember in high-school history class when you learned about the fertile crescent and when mankind turned from a hunter/gatherer existence to cultivating crops? Perhaps you have heard the argument that this all happened because early humans figured out how to make beer and they wanted more. If that is the case, then beer is basically responsible for our entire modern existence, right? That is the premise of this documentary. Does it hold up?


Before I get into the facts presented in this documentary, let’s be clear about one thing. This film is first and foremost an entertainment product, not an educational device. On that basis it unquestionably succeeds. It is slick, fast-paced and engaging. It tells its story very well and gives the viewer very little time to consider anything it says too deeply.

The documentary is pretty typical for what you see these days on television. A flock of talking heads, most of them with Dr. in front of their names, give little one or two sentence statements that are expanded upon by an overly dramatic narrator. The point is driven home with photos, graphics and stylized animation. One of the more engaging features of this production is that they sent a film crew to a nice bar where a lot of young, pretty people were enjoying beer. (Or perhaps they set up a fake bar in a studio someone and hired a bunch of out of work actors; one can never be sure about these things.) As the documentary revealed one incredible fact or another, it would get reactions from the folks in the bar which was usually laughing amazement.

It is a tad condescending, assuming that the viewer cannot go two minutes without a cute cartoon or clichéd beer joke. However, that is to be expected, isn’t it? After all, this program was developed to compete in prime time cable television so the producers cannot afford to slow down and let the viewers think or they might think that they would rather be watching the Real Housewives of South Dakota or So You Think You Can Dance Your Butt Off or whatever other reality show/docu-tainment shows might be on at the same time. So, I can forgive a bit of gratuitousness if that is what the producers think they need to do.

Again with the dang Franklin "quote"

What I find more unforgivable is playing fast and loose with the facts. Regular readers of this site already know that one of my pet peeves is when people “quote” Ben Franklin as saying that beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy. In fact, there is no evidence that Franklin ever said that or anything close to it. Some point to a real Franklin quote as the source of this myth: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Whether or not this is the origin of the misquote, it is hardly the same thing. So, why am I banging on about this?

When I first got the press release about this DVD I saw right away that it opened with that quote. Okay, I thought, I can get over that, it is just a press release. I did not publish it but, I did get over it. Then I received a personal email offering me a review copy about the DVD which I accepted. When the DVD arrived, the first thing I noticed was that damn quote again right on top of the back of the box in big bold letters and a framed picture of Franklin as part of the cover art. Pretty bad but I still let it go. Then, as I finally watched the program, I was amazed when it got to the bit about Franklin it not only trotted out that quote but, the graphics people had printed it in great big yellow letters that float away from the viewer into space, Star Wars style.

Finally, here is my point. If the documentarians behind this film cannot get a little thing like that quote right, can we trust anything the film says? The premise is that the desire for more beer was the catalyst for all of modern human society, beginning with cultivation. The supporting facts for this seem plausible as you watch the program but when you trip over something like the Franklin misquote, you have to start to wonder if all the evidence might have been bent to support the programs pre-determined conclusion that beer is responsible for all of human civilization.

This is not to diminish the contributions of all those talking heads. Most of these people seem to be smart people with serious jobs. But, it is easy to imagine that their sound bites could have been taken out of context and crafted to fit the narrative.

What about the facts, man?

I did not mean to launch into a course in media criticism at the outset of this review. Let’s drop that aspect for now, shall we?

According to “How Beer Saved the World” (HBSW), here is a brief history of human civilization. Modern humans have been around for 100,000 years. The first 90,000 years of that time we were universally hunter/gathers. Then, completely by accident, beer was invented. The accident went like this: One of the early humans left some raw barley in a pot. The pot got rained on and the barley got wet. It started to sprout but then dried out producing malt. Then the barley got really wet and stayed wet for a while. This produced beer.

I have had a problem with the spontaneous beer theory for a while now. It just does not seem possible that anyone could stumble into beer brewing. The idea that the barley could somehow dry out quickly and preciously seems unlikely but, the rewetted barley turning into beer instead of a bacteria packed, mold crusted soup of awful seems impossible. It seems far more likely that bread or some sort of barley soup came first. We will never really know for sure.

Archeologically speaking I’m on weak footing, it seems. According to Dr. Patrick McGoven, Professor of Bio-Archeology at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the aforementioned talking heads, beer was around at least 3,000 years before bread.

Anyway, back to the story of human civilization according to HBSW. Humans liked this new beverage and wanted more. So, they stopped following the herds, left the caves and started cultivating crops, specifically barley for more beer. This led to a whole host of inventions. The plow and irrigation are a couple of the more obvious human creations for which beer is given credit. Less obvious are things like math, which became necessary to farmers as their fields grew and needed to be quantified, and written language, which became necessary as people needed to keep records of the beer trade.

You get the point. The documentary sets out to prove that beer is responsible for every aspect of human civilization from the wheel to modern medicine. I could sit here and nitpick every little fact and historical speculation but, in the end, it is hard to argue with the premise. There may be a few errors here and there but if only a third of the facts are accurate as presented, one cannot argue that beer has been a vital aspect of human progress since before written history.

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One more aspect of this program that made me doubt its sincerity is that it appeared to be one long commercial for MillerCoors products. I suppose in this age of buzz marketing and product placement such a thing should not bother me but I just cannot help it. Every shot of a modern brewing facility was of a Miller plant. With only one exception, every brand of beer that I saw in the film was a MillerCoors product. Even when craft beer was mentioned, the brand that materialized on the TV screen was Leinenkugel, a Miller brand.

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