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Dear Science, Where Does This Lead?

Let's face it .  Beer is a commodity.  Throughout the history of brewing, the content and character of beer has been influenced by the costs of ingredients, brewing processes, and direct or indirect costs associated with batch inconsistencies.  Even though 21st century propserity allows the resurection of higher cost/higher flavor brewing.  It's silly to think that the embrace of brewing tradition will always ignore the tradition of embracing sciencentific advance to improve brewing economics or beer character.  

In fact, scientific advance is clearly needed to improve the economics of organic hop growing.  There's a growing market for organic beers as craft drinkers like their occasionally unique character, and this type of farming's sustainability.  However, Hops are a challenging crop.  Just ask any north eastern hop grower.  If you can find one.  Growers have long suffered from blight, and weather which has encouraged farmers to listen to Horace Greely and "Go West, young man". 

Farming hop heaven in the Yakima valley, or Žatec, is no guarantee  As sexed perennials, often grown from root cuttings, humulus lupus plants tend to lack genetic diversity.  They are more inbred than any crazy royal or country bumpkin.  Hop fields are practically armies clones.  If one plant gets sick there's a good chance that its neighbors will be equally susceptible.   Hops are sickly.  However, like any rapid grower, they are hungry and thirsty.  There's a great opportunity for science to improve fertilization techniques and balance the nitrogen replenishment provided by ground cover without competing with the thirsty hop.  Craft beer drinkers can expect to see near term benefits from this research.

Those with a longer view, may start looking at brewers chasing the holy grail of process economics continuous production.  Beer is brewed and it sits in one or more tanks for weeks or months of fermentation and conditioning.   This same stodgy old-fashioned batch process is used today by home brewers and commercial giants, alike.   Just imagine a process where grain goes in, and beer comes out at the same rate.  In brewing there's really two pieces to this puzzle:  continuous fermentation, and continuous wort production.

Continuous fermentation is real.  Its used today Dominion Breweries, and was after a fashion done by Bass in the 50s.  The process can be improved by immobilizing yeast cells on some sort of substrate ginger, wax, whatever.  Since alcohol is lower density than the sugar liquid feed, it self separates.  A fgascinating application of continuous fermentation is to make mead making a viable, low capital, enterprise in sub-Saharan Africa..  The same techniques have been co-opted by Maine Meadworks, and presumably others to generate quite respectable craft mead.    This could even been done with multi-cellular mega-yeasts.  Recent studies of nature's microbrewers have shown that the traits related to flocculation and settling are linked to mutations that promote evolution into multicellular organisms.  The trade-off with continuous systems is that they are great at making one flavor, but can be very challenging to changeover to another.    

The tricky part of continuous brewing is continuous mashing.  There's a of biochemistry in this short step.  Starches are extracted from crushed grain.  The starches are then broken into fermentable sugars by various enzymes.  Different amylase enzymes break the starches in different ways, at different temperatures.  Brewers control their mash to balance the alcohol content, body, and even head retention of their finished beer.   In some nightmarish scenario from a chemical engineering textbook, continuous mashing could use a series of vessels each.  Plug flow through heated tubes, or a similarly temperatures controlled auger/extruder could also work.

Is continuous brewing scary?  Yeah.  But it's probably key to getting brewing in space.  If science promises anything for our future it is beer from space.


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