I have long been fascinated by the meaning of beer; this is a piece written in that direction.
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Beer begins in the grave. The seed from which barley springs is not meant for us, not for our nutrition or pleasure. Rather, the starch in the seed is meant to feed the seed’s own rootlet. The cycle of life and death is anticipated by the seed, and its promise can only be fulfilled when the seed falls to earth and is buried, dead to the world.
Only then does germination take place. The starch turns to sugar, feeding the rootlet which breaks out of the hull and reaches down into the earth for moisture, down to set an anchor for the sprout. From the other end of the seed, the sprout emerges, probes upward, fights up to the sunlight and the air, and begins to grow, to live.
This rebirth is the miracle of spring in its simplest terms, the triumph of life over death, repeated billions of times all over the planet. And so the barley seed carries life forward. It grows and bears fruit, food for the next generation of seeds.
But we shortstop that fruit. Our lives intersect. We make the decision that our needs are more important than those of the plant, that our survival and our desires justify the taking of this life, the interruption of this life cycle.
A single beer represents an intersection of countless life cycles of barley grains, hop blossoms and yeast cells. The barley we chose to malt will never fulfill its original purpose. We take it away from the fields, trick it into germinating, converting its starch to sugar, then quickly kill the rootlet with heat. No longer will the sugar propel a rootlet to sprout. All so we can have a beer.
Fortunately, nature has anticipated our greed. The barley stalk carries more grains than are needed for propagation. Just like fish and reptiles that give birth to hundreds of offspring, so a single stalk of barley rises up with a score of seeds so that a few might survive the predators.
And we are predators, in league with the field mice, redwing blackbirds, ducks, geese and grasshoppers. The ducks and geese waddle in and bowl the stalks over. Mice chew the stalk at its base and bring it down like a redwood. We generally use machines.
I am not saying that any of us should stop. But I am suggesting that beer should be treated with a measure of respect and reverence because of the sacrifices that have been made, the sacrifices we have demanded of other living things.
That is why we say grace. Not merely to give thanks for the nourishment to go on living, but to ask for forgiveness from those living things whose lives we have taken, and to pray that we will use the energy we gain to do good in the world, that we will be worthy of the sacrifice we have demanded.
So may our toasts contain elements of humility and gratitude. Cheers, and thank you.