Beer Science Is A Lot Like Beer Magic

Chris Washenberger, June 11, 2013

Beer. To write about beer is to take stock of all of human history.

I suppose the relationship is really to yeast and ethanol, but why squabble over details? We can't discuss the production, quality or distribution of beer without first talking about magic, religion, history, politics and science.

Beer is inextricably linked to our evolution into the modern system of civilization. It is thought that our Neolithic ancestors settled into an agrarian, non-nomadic lifestyle due to their desire for a continual supply of beer and bread. Civilization was seeded with yeast and grain brought about by the power of intoxicants, and as time went on, by the life-saving qualities of a clean source of hydration.

Embracing the history of brewing gives us insight not only into the evolution of brewing technology, but into people and their relationship with science and technology throughout history. The connection between science and religion is a parable clearly illustrated by man’s relationship to yeast.

The foamy result of primary fermentation (krausen) was known to early English speaking brewers as “godsgoode.” This term has various interpretations all leading to the implication that it was a gift from heaven or God’s own product. We now know krausen to be a matrix of proteins and particulate matter that also contains a huge population of active yeast cells. We know the process of “top cropping” is a method of yeast harvesting that offers an effective pitch rate. Those old brewers only knew that if they scooped it into fresh wort, a miracle worthy of theological praise took place.

But when politics became involved yeast was a non-entity. The Reinheitsgebot, the set of beer purity laws that defined Bavarian beer for centuries, had no mention of yeast. In fact, all beer production up until the mid-19th Century only had the vaguest notion of something biologically interesting going on until yeast was identified by the work of Emil Christian Hansen and Louis Pasteur.

This history and uncountable (and likely unrecorded) little discoveries made by brewers throughout time have brought insipid lightly-alcoholic gruels to the level of clarity and perfection that we expect today.

I have been invited to BeerGraphs to tackle some of the more scientific aspects of beer and to look at the chemical and biological processes that must take place to get the glass of beer to your table. I will define the characteristics of beer and the factors that go into tasting and analyzing it. As they come up, I will attempt to dispel some of the persistent rumors and blatant falsehoods that permeate beer culture. I will do my best to avoid dumbing things down. We need to know this stuff.

In that though, I refuse to besmirch the ancient Sumerian brewer-priestesses or Europe’s cloistered monks, brewing to fuel their Lenten fasts. Without them and their uninformed knowledge, who knows where brewers and beer lovers would be?

Feel free to challenge me. Send me questions. I am excited to move forward here.