I love beer. Not just for the dizzying delirium of a good pub night, but for the taste, the subtleties and the brewing process. I would drink beer even if it didn’t have a drop of alcohol in it (and I have, many times). And for that reason, I just can’t stand what corporations have done with beer.

Beer is a very easy product to make a profit from. It’s addictive, intoxicating, and a virtual cultural requirement in many situations. It requires very little to produce other than grain and water, but can sell for well over $10/litre at almost any bar.

Since Prohibition ended in America, the continent’s beer markets have been monopolized by corporations like Miller, Coors and Labatt. By using new industrial brewing techniques and cheap rice and corn based “adjuncts”, they set a new standard for “American Lager” and similar products. Since the production costs were so low in these new standardized, mass-marketed brews, they quickly came to dominate around 95% of the market.

The result was a turn toward pissy, watery beers, which used far less barley and hops than traditional American brews. Corn and rice syrup act like adding white sugar to your mash – it increases the alcohol content “without altering the flavour”. Experienced brewers know this isn’t possible – most tend to believe they actually dull the flavour. And with the amounts used by some major American brewers (as much as 50%), there’s no question.

This type of criticism is usually aimed at big American beers, but it’s important to remember that major Canadian beer corporations like Labatt or Molson (neither of which is Canadian anymore) also use these adjuncts.

Watering down the drinks is a proud tradition among profiteers, but this is about more than just diluting them. Using other, cheap, industrial sugars in beer allows companies to promote alcoholism without putting the money, time or work into into producing quality products. Nowhere is this more clear than the “malt liqour” market. It’s not really “malt” liqour at all, more like “malt-flavoured liquor” – like most big corporate beers, it relies mainly on sugars like corn syrup to give it the extra kick (of 7-10% alcohol by volume). But malt liquor also shows the dark side of beer marketing – literally. Big beer manufacturers are constantly coming under fire for their marketing of over-proof, low-cost “40-ouncers” in poor black communities.

Hamiltonians know these games well. We recently saw our amazingly successful Lakeport brewery get bought out by Labatt, then closed down. Labatt has since refused to sell the building to any brewers, and is stripping the equipment for its other operations. They have since sued Waterloo-based Brick Breweries because the label on their “Red Baron Ale” uses a colour scheme similar to Brava, a former Lakeport product which they now sell.

Not everyone can afford to drink trendy microbrews. What everyone can afford, though, is homebrewing. I’ve seen it done many times for no money at all, but in my experience $7-20 is about par for the course for around 20 litres of beer – far cheaper than Lakeport. You can do this with a bucket, a baloon, a stock pot and around three cases of empty bottles and caps (screw-tops usually go right back on with a firm twist).

Homebrewing is about more than cheap beer, it’s about independence and self-sufficiency. We don’t all have to do it, but as any old-world wine-maker in the North End can explain to you, it’s a crucial expression of an area’s culture. It’s about making beer as light, strong, hoppy or fruity as we want, not being forced to chose from the same five watery beers everywhere we go. Commercializing beer cuts people off from the learning and experience, as well as profits, of brewing. It in exchange, it gives a few large, powerful corporations a strong economic reason to promote alcoholism. Every case of beer bought in Hamilton is another chunk of change that leaves town never to come back, and until we’re brewing our own, that won’t change.