Skip to main content

Dear Science, What Have You Done?

This week, Nature published a paper entitled "A physical, genetic and functional sequence assembly of the barley genome".    Promotional Press releases were quick to link this achievement to potential crop improvements.  The London Press wasted no time in connecting the dots to beer.  "Improvements" are changes, and the craft beer community greets all changes with levels of skepticism that are, at a minimum, healthy.  Alan McLeod's Good Beer Blog saw the discovery as the beginning of sceince's impact on brewing, and was quick to expand the question of the relative benefit of genetically engineered barley crops into a broad challenge to science as a whole: Can Science Really Improve Beer As Known Now?  Science has contributed significantly to brewing throughout the history of the art, and provided the tools that allow us to best appreciate our ancestors beer styles and brewing techniques.

Firstly, Science must be defined as an actor if it is to have a positive or negative effect on our beverage of choice.  The Good Beer Blog points out that the word scientist was coined by William Whennel in 1833.  Of course, scientists, by any other name, had been at work for centuries.  Kepler, Newton, Da Vinci, Linnaeus and hosts of others had been advancing the field long before it was so nobly christened.  They labored under the more romantic guises like natural philosophy, or cosmology; but, they produced what we would call science.

An appropriately crowd sourced, moderated, and reviewed definition of science is available from Wikipedia:  "Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe".   The universe is a fairly large bucket. Fortunately, this lucky bucket contains beer.

Quite fundamentally, science provides our complete set of tools to know beer beyond a sensory and social experience.  This recent work by a consortium of geneticists is not science's first interaction with beer.  It is only through science that we know that the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 committed at least one sin of omission when it defined beer as only comprised of only Barley, Hops, and water.  Yeast was invisible until Antonj van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope.  Science could then begin to reveal beer's secret ingredient. It's difficult to underestimate the positive impact of Louis Pasteur's Études sur la bière on our ability to brew consistently.  And who could forget Daniel Fahrenheit's gift of the thermometer?  Without it we'd be blind to fermentation controls, or scaling mashing steps up or down.

While beer has been brewed throughout human history, science has made tremendous contributions to our understanding of the craft.  A comparison of two texts with quite similar titles, yet differing by slightly less than a century in age illuminates this impact quite quickly.  Michael Combrue's 1762 "Theory and Practice of Brewing" was a major English language brewing text of its day, found in the libraries of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  It contains some calculations around heat, but generally relies on practice to deftly dance around gaps in contemporary understanding. 
It is certainly very difficult, if not totally impossible to discover the true and adequate cause of fermentation.  But, by tracing its several stages, circumstances and effects, we may perhaps find out the agents and means employed by nature to produce this singular change; a degree of knowledge, which if not sufficient to satisfy philosophical curiosity, may be so to answer our practical purposes.  p.49
While yeast is mentioned, it's clearly not well understood.

In 1846 William Littel Tizard published a second edition of his book "The Theory and Practice of Brewing Illustrated" and in the preface criticized those who challenged his application of science to brewing.
Surely brewers ought not to be less intellectual than farmers. Let those who are self-sufficient enough to scorn the idea of the necessity of chemical improvement run through a few modem books, subscribe to a periodical or two, attend a series of lectures on agriculture, read the farmers' newspapers, peruse the " Journal," &c., visit their public halls and reading-rooms, inspect their newly invented machines and implements, their improved and scientifically arranged homesteads, well-tilled lands and luxuriant crops ; and if then their own convictions do not cause them to blush, they must really be unaccountable creatures.
He doesn't stop there.  Each technical topic is introduced, punctuated, and colored with frequent editorializing about the virtuous application of science to brewing.  While his science was by no means complete, the text includes a working knowledge of enzymes, sugar content, yeast, and even the atom.

In a few short years science had transformed brewing from practical magic to an industry.  The Good Beer Blog notes improvements in the logs of the Vassar brewery from a record of basic supply chain transactions to logs with details defining the actual brewing process  It's the scientific data - the measurements of temperature and gravity - that make Ron Pattinson's analysis of brewing logs relevant to contemporary brewers.   Without the science, even more guesswork and interpretation is required to bring recreations into the present.  Without science, we wouldn't have beer as it is known now.

Accepting the extensive contributions of science to the craft of brewing, one may wonder, if there's anything positive left for science to add.  It is quite unlikely that this genome map will immediately inspire a radical new recipe, although I wouldn't put it past Sam Calagione to find an absurd way to utilize these genetic maps in brewing.  If nothing else, they'd provide a pleasant design for beer mats.

Subsequent posts will discuss science's contributions to brewing today, and ways it could improve brewing in the future.

Comments

Greatest Hits

Holiday Gift Ideas for The Beer Lover

The gift of beer itself may seem obvious, but it is fraught with pitfalls. Especially if the gift giver is not as knowledgeable, experienced, or perhaps as jaded as the intended recipient. Craft beer lovers tend to have promiscuous taste buds. They crave new and exciting, and occasionally hard to find beers. How can anyone hope to keep track of another person's sense of new. You may have an advantage if you live a few states away and distribution agreements give you unique access to a hot new Nano, or even a New Belgium scale microbrewery. That's a great in if you have a little guidance. A beer lover that's a bit of a hoarder may enjoy an annual gift of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, or Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for their cellar. However, the safest bet for a beer gift is t he somewhat corny Beer of the Month Club.
Has the beer lover on your list has neglected to drop any good hints for gift ideas? Are you looking to surprise? Here are some ideas to consider.

Gi…

Beer Destinations: Prague

Beneath a fairy tale skyline of spires, domes, and towers, a modern city of industry and commerce sits upon cobblestone streets and ancient bridges.Prague is a maddening riddle.Brilliant minds like Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal relied upon surrealistic visions to make sense of it.Despite the city’s complex and frankly tumultuous history, there’s a millennia of brilliantly preserved architecture, miraculously spared the devastation of fire, war, and tasteless modernizations that have continuously reshaped many European cities.

Located between the noble hop fields of Žatec (Saaz in German) and Moravia’s cascading barley fields, Prague is within easy reach of the ingredients to needed to sustain a vital brewing scene. However, the city was not spared the 20th century’s assault on local beer culture.In the early 1990s, international breweries monopolized the city’s tap handles.Brewpubs were mostly forgotten, a novelty for tourists, at best. This Prague earned a reputation for drinking hol…

Nostalgia and New Ideas: Craft Beer Luminaries Find Ways To Stay Relevant

I'm not envious of the youngsters starting out in an era when good beer is available on every street corner.   Yes, things have never been more exciting in US Micro brewing but I feel the grip of  nostalgia.  New breweries are opening almost weekly.  New taprooms draw crowds to taste new, photogenic beers.  Novelty, at times, seems to surpass quality in importance to today's promiscuous drinkers.  Which isn't to say that we didn't get around in my day.  It's just that we didn't make such an effort to make an obvious trail, or tally our conquests.  Which were, admittedly, somewhat smaller in number. 

Might today's craft drinkers missing some great beers from great breweries, in a quest for the next big thing, and a desire to avoid drinking one of dad's many microbrews?  The good news is that many are doing cool things to stay interesting, and remain in conversation.

So many brewing luminaries of my youth are now ancient.  Great Lakes Brewing is 30.  Bel…