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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.


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