FROM THE ARCHIVES: brew masters


Back from Dragon*Con, with my very own case of "con crud" — clearly I am paying the price for not bringing my personal supply of Purell. But in the meantime, here's a post from the archives about the science of beer, inspired by news this week that ancient beer had an antibiotic effect in Nubian civilizations. Archaeologists say so! So next time you imbibe while out with friends, you can regale them with your science-y expertise.

The Spousal Unit and I are all moved into our shiny new Echo Park townhouse, and as always happens with the packing and unpacking process, we got rid of a bunch of unnecessary items that had been languishing in storage the last two years. The move also prompted me to sift through my bulging blog fodder file, tossing out things that just haven't developed into actual ideas for blog posts, and combining several others on related topics into handy paper-clipped bunches for future reference. For instance, I seem to have collected an impressive array of items on various science-y aspects of beer, which forms the topic of today's monster post. Benjamin Franklin once observed, "Beer is living proof that God wants us to be happy," and we're all about sharing the joy here at the cocktail party.

First, a few words about beer's long and glorious history. It's one of the oldest beverages, a staple in ancient Egypt, where yeast was used both to make bread and beer. Those Egyptians made the most of their resources. Early forms of beer were flavored with things like wild rosemary, coriander, giner, anise seed or juniper berries, but by 400 BC or so, hops had become the staple for imparting flavor, aroma and stability to the brew. Hop is the flower of the hop vine (related to hemp), and has natural antiseptic properties, which might be why it proved so popular as a brewers' additive: they could have a lower alcohol content and still prevent spoilage, thereby expanding their profit margins.Sumerianrecipe1

The earliest reference to beer dates back to 6000 BC, with an actual recipe — in verse, no less, called "The Hymn to Ninkasi", the goddess of brewing — appearing on a 4000-year-old Sumerian tablet. The Anchor Brewing Company actually produced a limited edition beer based on the this recipe, which is no small feat considering how vague the "instructions" are:

The filtering vat, which makes

a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat.

Ninkasi, the filtering vat,

which makes a pleasant sound,

you place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat.

Okay, so maybe the ancient Sumerians triumph in the category of Earliest Recorded Recipe for Beer, but a pair of archaeologists at the Moore Archaeological and Environmental Services in Galway insist that the Irish also have a long tradition of brewing beer, possibly dating back as far as 2500 BC. In 2007, Billy Quinn and Declan Moore suggested that ancient sites in Ireland called fulacht fiadh may have been used for brewing a Bronze-Age ale, based on evidence they've uncovered at those sites. These are small, horseshoe shaped grass covered mounds, composed of burnt and fire cracked stones and a central pit or trough. There are as many as 4500 known fulacht fiadh throughout the country. Last year the archaeologists bolstered their case by conducting their own brewing experiments at the site, per this article in The Indian (h/t: Lighthouse Patriot Journal): Brewing

With a view to investigating their theory, the two researchers set out to recreate the process. They used an old wooden trough filled with water and added heated stones. After achieving an optimum temperature of 60 to 70 degrees Celsius, the researchers began to add milled barley, and after about 45 minutes simply baled the final product into fermentation vessels. The researchers added natural wild flavourings taking care to avoid anything toxic or hallucinogenic, and later added yeast after cooling the vessels in a bath of cold water for several hours.

“Including the leftover liquid we could easily have produced up to 300 litres of this most basic ale,” said Moore. The researchers said that the results of their experiments suggested that the process of brewing ale in a fulacht using hot rock technology was a simple process, and that to produce the ale took only a few hours, followed by a few-days wait to allow for fermentation. Although Quinn and Moore’s theory is based solely on circumstantial and experimental evidence, both researchers believe that a primary use of the fulacht fiadh was for brewing beer.


The article doesn't say whether or not Quinn and Moore actually drank the fermented product of their experiment, but microbiologist Raul Cano did, and he then turned his experiments into a bona fide brewing company. Cano first made headlines back in 1995 when he successfully extracted living bacterium from a bee entombed in amber dating back some 24-45 million years — the plot device underlying Jurassic Park, which is why Cano got so much attention (the film came out in 1995). Cano is the director of Cal Poly's Evnironmental Biotechnology Institute (EBI), and was thrilled when he successfully extracted more than 200 different kinds of microscopic creatures from inside a Lebanese weevil trapped into ancient Burmese amber. The tiny colony of bacteria and yeast had lain dormant for millions of years, and Cano was able to activate the ancient yeast to brew his own tasty fermented concoctions. Ancient-ale

At the cast party for Jurassic Park: The Lost World, he served samples of T-Rex Lager, Stegosaurus Stout, Jurassic Amber Ale, and Ancient Ale. The crew was thrilled, and while his scientific colleagues were initially skeptical — as scientists are wont to be — since then, at least three independent experiments have verified that it is indeed possible to isolate and extract a living organism from ancient amber. (Note that this doesn't mean we'll be cloning dinosaurs any time soon. Any good DNA expert will tell you that extracted DNA is far too damaged for cloning purposes.)

One of those confirming scientists, Lewis "Chip" Lambert, is now Cano's partner in Fossil Fuels Brewing Company. The idea is to brew commercially viable beer using their prehistoric yeast, and use the proceeds to fund biofuels research. They teamed up with commercial brewer Pete Hacket of Stumptown, famed for its Rat Bastard Ale. A blind tasting director of Celebrator Beer News named Jay Brooks pronounced Tyrannosaurus Rat beer as "smoother, with softer fruity flavor characteristics [than Rat Bastard Ale] and just a touch of lemony sweetness that isn't tart" — demonstrating that beer lovers might one day rival oenophiles when it comes to lurid descriptions of their favored beverages. Other reviewers have talked of a "weird spiciness at the finish," and described it as "smooth and spicy."

That unique flavor, says Cano, is partly due to the fact the ancient yeast can only metabolize a narrow selection of carbohydrates, unlike modern yeasts, which devour just about any kind of sugar it encounters. And he expects the ancient stuff will gradually evolve to more closely resemble its modern cousins in terms of a broader metabolism. That may alter the taste, so Cano is keeping a batch of the original yeast in storage, just in case. How such microorganisms survived for 35 million years trapped in amber remains a mystery, but suggests the tantalizing possibility that we could one day induce dormancy in infectious creatures, rather than killing them outright with antibiotics. If it can be induced by downing a tasty beer, so much the better.

Last October, news broke that a group of undergraduates at Rice University were using genetic engineering to create a beer that combats cancer, with the intention of entering their "BioBeer" in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. (A team from Slovenia wound up winning the Grand Prize, but the Rice Students were runners up, and won for best presentation.) They call themselves the BiOWLogists, and got the idea while brainstorming ideas for their team entry in the 2008 iGEM competition. Grad student Peter Nguyen joked that they should try putting resveratrol into beer — a chemical in wine that has reduced cancer and heart disease in laboratory animals.

It might have stayed a joke, except the students found that there's actually quite a lot of published scientific literature dealing with the modification of yeast with genes related to resveratrol, and they realized "You know, we could actually do this," according to junior Thomas Segall-Shapiro. They did indeed create a genetically modified strain of yeast to ferment beer and produce resveratrol at the same time. Yes, they brewed some test patches — even though many team members technically aren't of legal drinking age — but it wasn't fit for consumption because it necessarily contained chemical markers. "There's no way anyone's drinking any of this until we get rid of that," says Segall-Shapiro, adding that there's only one genetically modified strain of yeast currently approved for use in beer.

It's nice how beer seems to inspire all manner of creativity in both scientists and non-scientists alike — not to mention science-and-beer aficionados like John Carnett, a staff photographer at Popular Science who invented his own all-in-one microbrewery that boils, ferments, chills and pours his own homemade brewskis:

In most home-brewing setups, each step in the process requires moving the beer to a new container by hand, which increases the chance of contamination and requires you to lift stuff. Carnett's machine keeps everything in the carts' closed system and requires only that he swap a few CO2-pressurized hoses to move the liquid along. It also employs a complex temperature-control system to regulate the fermentation (often done in a corner of a basement) to within a degree or two. A couple weeks later, the same system chills the beer on its way from keg to tap, so the Device is always ready with a cold pour and consumes no power when it's not serving or fermenting.

Last November, New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger wrote a lengthy article on the rise of extreme beer for that magazine, profiling Baltimore businessman John Gasparine, who owns a flooring company. While traveling through southern Paraguay on quest for sustainably harvested wood, he found local wood-carvers favored palo santo (holy wood), "so heavy that it sank in water, so hard and oily that it was sometimes made into ball bearings or self-lubricating bushings," Bilger wrote. "It smelled as sweet as sandalwood and was said to impart its fragrance to food and drink."

Among the many uses of the wood was fashioning wine barrels. Gasparine is more of a beer man, and his favorite bar in downtown Baltimore served an unusual beer from a brewery called Dogfish Head, with the motto "Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People." Dogfish makes standard Belgian ales, but also experiments with beers brewed with oysters or arctic cloudberries, and sometimes aged its beer in oak barrels. Sensing a unique business opportunity, Gasparine wrote to the owner, Sam Calagione, suggesting he try fashioning a barrel out of palo santo. It wasn't an easy task to build a barrel to hold nine thousand gallons: the wood is three times harder than rock maple, and easily dulls saw blades.

But they succeeded, and the result was Palo Santo Marron, containing 12% alcohol with "hints of tobacco and molasses in it, black cherries and dark chocolate, all interlaced with the wood's spicy resin. It tasted like some ancient elixir that the Inca might have made." (Bilger, apparently, is an Off-Centered Beer Man.) It makes a nice addition to the Dogfish line-up which also includes 120 Minite I.P.A. (India Pale Ale), famed for being one of the strongest beers of its kind in the world, with 18% alcohol and 120 international bittering units, or IBUs. (Most India pale ales have 6% alcohol and only 40 IBUs.) In fact, Dogfish brews more beers with at least 10% alcohol than any other brewer, according to Bilger's article, and gets inspiration for bizarre ingredients from ancient recipes — possibly even that old Sumerian tablet.

So much for the science and and craft of brewing beer. The bottles have their own underlying physics, evidenced by a demonstration at the APS March Meeting in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago that showed what's really going on when you break a beer bottle with your bare hands. I'm not talking about smashing a bottle on the edge of a pool table to create a makeshift weapon — a move that's a staple of cinematic fight scene choreography. (Not that I've ever tried this myself, mind you, but I'm told by those who have tried it that it's easier said than done.)

It's also possible to fill a beer bottle with water, with just a small space near the top, jerk the bottle sharply upward while smacking the opening with your palm. Get everything just right and the bottom of the bottle will shatter while the rest of the bottle remains intact. The secret? Bubbles. Or more accurately, acoustic cavitation. It's a cool effect which is probably why videos of the trick can easily be found on YouTube.


As for the March Meeting demo, it all started a couple of years ago when Sunny Jung, an MIT mathematician, was attending a party at New York University with a few colleagues from MIT, NYU and Kent State. After a few Coronas, the conversation naturally turned to the "beer bottle trick" and possible explanations for the physical phenomenon behind it. The scientists first assumed that it as the pressure change created in the bottle with the hand strike, except when they tried the trick with ultra-pure water with no bubbles it didn't work, even if the bottle was struck with the same amount of force. Clearly the microbubbles created in the water by the upward jerk played a critical role, and they figured it had to be acoustic cavitation. (The pistol shrimp — one of the loudest creatures in the ocean — has one very large claw that, when snapped, creates bubbles with enough energy to stun its prey.)

So Jung and his cohorts had their working hypothesis and it was time to test it. They hooked up a high speed camera and microphone in a lab and did the trick again. The experiment revealed that when the beer bottle is struck all the liquid rushes rapidly upwardly, and as the pressure in the moving water dropped, thousands of tiny bubbles formed, clumping together at the bottom and imploding. "The force of all these collapsing bubbles becomes concentrated into a small area," Sung's collaborator Jake Fontana explained, who was able to calculate that the pressure generated at the bottom of the bottle was around 1000 pounds per square inch.

It's worth noting that not just any glass container will do. It's the shape of the beer bottle — featuring a flat bottom and narrow neck — that concentrates all those bubbles. And for those tempted to try this at home, Jung et al suggest wearing protective gloves and safety goggles, and performing the experiment over a nice big bucket to catch the shattering glass. Hangover_dog

The other built-in risk factor for beer is, of course, the hangover. I haven't had too many of these, but the ones I've had were certainly memorable. They were not, however, due to over-consumption of beer, but to over-consumption of other liquor, notably, scotch and tequila. And my very first hangover arose from mixing alcohols: I started off with a beer, followed it with a kamikaze, then a margarita, and finished with a glass of cheap chablis, with predictably disastrous results. College students learn this mantra very quickly: "Beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, never fear."  (Drink enough of anything, obviously, and the mantra becomes moot.)

Apparently there's a scientific basis for that mantra. One of the contributing factors to hangovers are congeners, toxic chemicals formed during the fermentation process. Not all alcohols are created equal when it comes to concentration of congeners: vodka has the least, followed by gin, while scotch whiskey, brandy, rum, and single malt scotch have four to six times more congeners than gin. Per the British Medical Journal, you're more likely to get a hangover from drinking brandy, followed by red wine, rum, whiskey, white wine, gin and vodka. And it really is not a good idea to mix booze, since this makes it harder for your body to process all the varieties congeners. 

As for taking "a hair of the dog that bit you" to remedy a hangover, this does work at easing the symptoms of a hangover, but ultimately it just postpones the inevitable. Drinking lots of water before retiring for the night can counter alcohol's dehydrating effects — another contributing factor to hangovers — and drinking coffee the next morning might only make it worse, since both alcohol and caffeine are diuretics.

Ultimately, the best defense is not to over-indulge in the first place. "Moderation in all things," as our good friend Epicurus once said. One leaves one's college years behind, and discovers the joys of quality over quantity. But I still want to drag the Spousal Unit to a new college hangout near USC called The Lab GastroPub. You can't go wrong with beer, victuals, and chalkboards filled with equations.


6 thoughts on “FROM THE ARCHIVES: brew masters”

  1. I was told that the idea that simply mixing alcohols made you sicker was wrong — in order to create a memorable “mix”, it was necessary to consume a lot of alcohol… I haven’t done enough personal experimentation to find out, since the initial results were rather ghastly.

  2. marvin thalenberg md

    I have a bottle of Dogfish Ale in the fridge right now. It’s called Midas Touch Ancient Ale- flavored with honey, white muscat grapes and saffron. Tastes medieval.

  3. Moderation is for monks – take big sips!
    some ones to look for
    Triple Exultaion old ale – Eel River NorCal
    Pliny the Elder Russian River NorCal
    Old Rasputin and Brother Thelonious – North Coast Brewing NorCal
    of course the great stuff from Stone in San Diego

  4. I am SO glad you re-posted this. This is a great post about beer. aahh beer. I might be sharing these little stories with friends at the next cocktail party.

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