fermentable frivolities

Jenlucpiquant1_3Time flies when you're having fun, per that hoary old chestnut of an adage, but there's a lesser known corollary: time passes even more quickly when you're juggling multiple deadlines with conferences and book promotion, not to mention much-needed home repairs. Fortunately, we're still managing to have some fun amidst the mayhem (and time is therefore passing at near record-breaking rates — I meant to post this last week). At the AAAS meeting in San Francisco, I got to hang out with Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science and her husband over some tasty Thai food. I also ran into Kristin A. of Radioactive Banana and frequent commenters Alison Chaiken and Louise Riofrio, a.k.a., A Babe in the Universe.

Perhaps because I didn't attend any of the climate change sessions, I kept missing Chris Mooney — author of The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Storm World — in 'Frisco. No worries, I caught up with him a few days later: we were both featured guests for a Bookslut-sponsored reading in Chicago, with Deborah Blum, author of Ghost Hunters, rounding out the evening. To the casual observer, it might appear that I am stalking Chris across the country, but really, we live barely a mile apart. It'd be so much easier to stalk him in DC. (Jen-Luc Piquant points out that he did make Wired's "Sexiest Geeks" Top Ten List in 2005, along with our lovely Bookslut hostess, Jessa Crispin. And wasn't there an online debate just last year as to whether he was "sponge-worthy"?)

Chris' manly image suffered a serious blow, however, when he bellied up to the bar after the reading. The event was held at The Hopleaf Bar, touted as one of the best beer bars in the country, with a "beer menu" that runs many pages and features fine fermentables from all over the world. So the bartender might be forgiven for showing some urban-hipster attitude when Chris asked for… a Miller Lite. "We don't have Miller Lite," the bartender sneered. Chris took the disdain in stride and asked for whatever beer was closest to it. "We don't serve lite beers at all," the barkeep huffed. We have no idea what kind of brew Chris ended up with, but he's lucky the barkeep didn't spit into his mug, so deeply ran his contempt.

Beer aficionados will no doubt blanch at the sentiment, but at the most basic level, beer is beer, whether it's Chris' beloved Miller Lite, a pint of Guinness, or a frothy concoction from your favorite local microbrewery. (Hey! Stop menacing me with that barrel of hops and hear me out!) Sure, there are umpteen varieties and a myriad of subtle differences in color, flavor, foaming properties and the like. But the actual brewing process has remained fundamentally unchanged for thousands of years. Not only did the ancient Egyptians brew beer 5000 years ago — which meshed nicely with their bread-making activities, since both processes are yeast-reliant — but there's some evidence that the Mesopotamians may have brewed beer 1000 years earlier than the Egyptians.

It's all about the fermentation, according to this handy little article in "What's That Stuff?", a regular online feature of Chemical and Engineering News. (For insights into the foamy properties of beer, check out Sid Perkowitz's Universal Foam, which has an entire chapter devoted to foamy food and drink; beer is prominently featured.) You start with malted cereal (in which the starch and proteins in grain cells have been broken down into simpler compounds). The malt is milled and mashed down at Yon Local Brewery to produce maltose and other fermentable sugars. The whole mess is soaked in hot water, and then the liquid portion — the wort — is separated from the grains. The addition of hops lends bitterness (apparently this is a good thing) and aroma, and the concoction is boiled for sterilization purposes.

This is where the yeast comes in. Yeast isn't just a random bread-baking ingredient; it's a living organism. In order to grow and multiply, the yeast cells must feed on the sugars and amino acids contained in the wort, before excreting waste products like ethanol and carbon dioxide. Ewww. Yeast excrement: it's in your beer. Or it would be, except most commercial beers — like, say, Miller Lite — undergo a filtration process to remove "impurities." Traditional British ales aren't filtered at all, so the insoluble proteins, yeast and other "suspended matter" are still there. (Jen-Luc has always found British beers to be a bit "chewy.") Perhaps that's why the Hopleaf bartender sneered: real men like their yeast excrement/brewing byproducts intact.

The final step is carbonation, which produces all those pleasing beery bubbles. Like fermentation, carbonation is a natural process: at high pressures underground, spring water can absorb carbon dioxide and become "effervescent." "Seltzer" originally referred to the mineral water naturally produced in springs near a German town called Niederseltsers, although today, it's pretty much just filtered tap water that's been artificially carbonated. We owe the artificial carbonation process to Joseph Priestley, a British scientist best known for discovering oxygen, along with eight other gases, including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). ("Oxygen is so important," observes Jen-Luc, a veritable mistress of ironic understatement.) Sodawaterfig2

In 1767, Priestley was living next to a brewery in Leeds and started experimenting with the brewery gas using candles and burning pieces of wood. In one such experiment, he placed a bowl of water above the surface of a liquor in the process of fermenting, and found it quickly took on a sweetly acidic taste akin to the famed mineral water of Niederseltsers. The end result was the 1772 publication of Impregnating Water with Fixed Air, which included very simple instructions:

"If water be only in contact with fixed air, it will begin to imbibe it, but the mixture is greatly accelerated by agitation, which is continually bringing fresh particles of air and water into contact. All that is necessary, therefore, to make this process expeditious and effectual, is first to procure a sufficient quantity of this fixed air, and then to contrive a method by which the air and water may be strongly agitated in the same vessel, without any danger of admitting the common air to them; and this is easily done by first filling any vessel with water, and introducing the fixed air to it, while it stands inverted in another vessel of water."

This is the epitome of clear, concise communication in science, and Priestley was writing in 1772! His carbonation process was further refined, and bottled "seltzer water" officially hit the commercial market in 1807, thanks to a Yale University chemistry professor named Benjamin Silliman ("Silly Man"?). The first soda fountain appeared in Philadelphia in 1838, featuring sweetened and flavored carbonated drinks, and by 1891 there were more soda fountains in New York City than bars. Just a few years earlier, in 1886, Atlanta druggist John S. Pemberton sought a remedy for headaches and hangovers, and devised the bright idea of adding kola nut extract to coca extract. The result: Coca-Cola. A century later, the diet version of Pemberton's concoction would get me through many a college all-nighter. The man was a bona fide genius.

Back to this whole fermentation thing, specifically, the bacteria responsible for the breaking-down-into-byproducts process: yeast isn't the only species of bacteria that can do this. There's 400-500 different species and subspecies of micro-organisms in the guts of termites alone. The insects chow down on wood cellulose and convert it into energy. That's why physicist/Nobel Laureate Steven Chu of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been widely quoted as saying that termites could save the world from oil dependence. He was kind of misquoted, or rather, the nuances of his points were lost in the translation to the mass media marketplace. Hey, it happens. But there's some factual basis for the claim.

Chu is one of several scientists pursuing research into more efficient ways to convert biomass into usable energy, and finding some nifty lessons in biological enzymes found in, say, the guts of termites. For instance, the termite can crank out a full two liters of hydrogen by fermenting just one sheet of paper. This makes it "one of the planet's most efficient bioreactors," according to a DOE fact sheet from the Joint Genome Institute. That's why JGI researchers are interested in sequencing all those microbe species, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the biochemical pathways at play, thereby leading to more efficient conversion of biomass into useful fuels like ethanol. (JGI scientists are also sequencing the DNA of poplar trees and soybeans as other possible biomass-derived fuel sources of the future.)

We've certainly got plenty of biostuff to work with: a 2005 study by the Department of Agriculture found that the U.S. produces about 1.3 billion dry tons of excess biomass a year, 60% of which is agricultural waste. This could be used to produce about 130 gallons of ethanol. Americans consume 140 billion gallons of fuel for transportation each year, so at first glance, one might think hey! We can meet all our transportation fuel requirements through biomass! If only it were that simple. Ethanol doesn't have as much energy content as gas (roughly two-thirds), and most American cars can't run on fuel if it has more than 10% ethanol content. Retrofitting would be needed, and that takes time. Plus, producing cellulose-derived ethanol is both expensive and time-consuming. Maybe the termites can help with that aspect, at least.

Termites have already provided the inspiration for an energy-efficient office building in Harara, Zimbabwe. The Eastgate Building is widely deemed to be one of the best examples of sustainable architecture in the world; it has no air conditioning and virtually no heating system, and uses less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building of comparable size. Architect Mick Pierce based his design on the termite mounds found in the region, which control temperatures to within a single degree Celsius over the course of a day, despite wildly fluctuating temperatures (35 degrees F at night up to 104 degrees F during the day). Termites need that level of control to cultivate the fungus they use as food, which flourish at 87 degrees F. So their mounds feature a series of heating and cooling vents that the insects can open and close as needed over the course of the day.

The Eastgate Building employs a similar approach, and the result is some very real cost savings, for both the Eastgate owners and their tenants (rents are 20% lower than in the new building next door). It's an ingenious design from an ingenious architect who's doing his part to save the planet — or at least, save us from ourselves. Someone should buy Mick Pierce a beer every time he strolls into a pub. Just don't make it a Miller Lite.


17 thoughts on “fermentable frivolities”

  1. I find it very odd that they’ll sneer at Miller Lite (which I’m sure is dreadful), yet they’ll sell cans of Boddington’s as though it were a foreign speciality.

  2. It’s the accent, Andrew. Fools the Yanks every time. And truthfully, even the Brits’ worst beer is better than 95% of ours, barring microbrews. The only thing I can think of that’s worse than Miller Lite might possibly be Pabst. And while it might all be the same at the basic fermentation level, its the art (and science) of brewers that makes beer such wonderful stuff when it’s done with care.

  3. Hops not only lend bitterness (which is indeed good!) but also aid in head retention and impart preservative qualities to the beer, good for, say, long sea voyages to India – hence the hoppy India Pale Ale style of British beer.
    Adding hops during different stages of the brewing process yield different characteristics as well. Hops which are present for the entire boiling process give bitterness, while hops which are added only during the last few minutes of the boil give more hop flavor. Hops added during fermentation will impart hop aroma to the final product.
    Who says you can’t have beer at a cocktail party?

  4. How do we know he didn’t spit in my mug?
    Actually I think that, repeatedly thwarted, I switched to gin and tonics at that point….was fun to see you in Chicago.

  5. I’m going to have to read Chris Mooney’s stuff. The bartender, on the other hand, sounds like a twit. I live a little burg in the Pacific Northwest, and I pride myself on ordering a Coors Light oinstead of one of the goofy-named “seasonals” when I go to local watering holes. I’d rather listen to pretentious wine connoisseurs prattle on than a bunch of portly, self-serious old frat boys who fancy themselves highly tuned aesthetes but are still basically gluttonous fat dudes who like to drink them some beer. Actually, both types are insufferable, and I’d like to harsh their mellows equally.

  6. Does science lead to alcoholism?

    We do seem to have a bunch of lushes, although that Mooney fellow seems to favor fluids that have only a passing acquaintance with beerbut I shouldn’t knock it, maybe that’s how he maintains his boyish, youthful appearance. Jennifer…

  7. According to a beer-loving friend of mine, the main difference between good beer from microbreweries and bad beer like miller lite is as follows:
    Microbrew beers are supposedly made in the usual straightforward way that we tend to assume all beers are made with. However, many of the mass-producing breweries are actually brewing up malt liquor in their vats, and then diluting it with water and artificially flavouring it.

  8. evilchemistry

    yeast isn’t the only species of bacteria that can do this.
    Yeast are eukaryotes. Bacteria are prokaryotes. If you had written microorganism you would be correct.

  9. Years ago, i went to a deli and ordered a sandwich. There were many choices for each item. What kind of break would you like? I wanted white bread. Wonder, if you have it. No white bread. Here’s the list. I went with pumpernickle. What kind of cheese? Kraft singles? No. American? No. Swiss? If you have to. What kind of lettuce? Iceberg? No – this is a deli. Hey – Iceberg is organic. It’s grown, not manufactured! How about Boston? OK. And on and on.

  10. Daniel Harper

    As a self-described beer geek (unfortunately, trying to make it in Alabama), the main difference between Miller Lite (and other macro products) and what we can colloquially call “good beer” isn’t technical so much as artistic — “good beer” covers an extremely wide range of flavors, colors, and textures, ranging from a light crisp Kolsch to a Strong Dark Belgian to a Russian Imperial Stout and back. Macro products are brewed to be as bland and inoffensive as possible (thus their relative popularity) and generally have an unpleasant corn aftertaste due to the cheap adjuncts used in the brewing process.
    Ordering a Miller Lite at a good beer bar like the one described above is a bit like insisting on Beef-A-Roni at a nice Italian restaurant, or wanting some ketchup to go on a fine rack of ribs. It’s the mark of someone completely uneducated in the culinary art, and it shouldn’t be at all suprising that the bar didn’t carry it. (Although something like a light Pilsner or Kolsch would be reasonably similar in color and texture to a macro beer, and I’d be shocked if a decent beer bar didn’t stock something like that specifically for their macro-desiring customers.)
    Then again, some people would rather have the Beef-A-Roni, I guess, than to feel like a “portly, self-serious old frat boy who fancies himself a highly tuned aesthete but is still basically a gluttonous fat dude who likes to eat him some pasta.”

  11. Daniel Harper

    Re my earlier comment: I’m not implying that Mooney is necessarily “completely uneducated in the culinary art”, when referring to his desiring a Miller Lite in a beer bar, but it’s easy for the bartender and/or regular patrons of a really good beer bar to see it that way. Better beer bars often have to fight to stay open even in the best of areas, and seeing people wander into these places and order really crappy macro lagers is a bit of a pet peeve amongst beer geeks.

  12. Major breweries also tend to use a lot of cheaper grains like rice and such.
    Also did ya know that the containers that Budweiser puts the beechwood in where originally the casings for torpedoes? And the beechwood was a rough way of filtering out the dead yeast and not intentionally a flavor additive?
    I wish I would have gone to AAAS. I’m a viticulturist. People say I have a pretty sexy science career!

  13. I loved your post on beer. However…I was a bit puzzled over one sentence.
    The following statement strikes me as problematic, on several counts:
    “Like fermentation, carbonation is a natural process: at high pressures underground, spring water can absorb carbon dioxide and become “effervescent.” ”
    Here’s why: First, water underground below a water table (unconfined aquifer)or potentiometric surface (confined aquifer) is normally considered to be ground water. Water that comes up to the land surface at springs is then known as spring water. That water that reaches the air/water interface is now at atmospheric pressure. When the water is at high pressure, it actually is not spring water—instead, it is at some depth below the air/water interface, as ground water.
    Second, the source of carbon dioxide in most spring waters overwhelmingly comes from the soil zone, as decay from microbial activity, under conditions of low atmospheric and water pressure. Infiltrating water is in an environment in the soil with high carbon dioxide (gaseous) partial pressure. As a result, equilibrium chemical processes lead to carbon dioxide becoming dissolved in the water with a series of (primarily temperature dependent) reactions taking place and ions forming. There is CO2 (g) (very little), H2C03 (carbonic acid), H+, HCO3-, and CO3–. Such solutions are acidic and can dissolve CaCO3 (calcite, as in limestone bedrock).
    Your statement seems to imply that water goes underground, reaches high pressure, and then somehow absorbs carbon dioxide [from what source?] and becomes “effervescent.” But this makes no sense, because the source of the carbon dioxide is not at depth under high water pressure. And if by effervescence you mean “formation of visible gas bubbles,” that would not occur until the water reached a zone in which the gas is coming out of solution.
    You are, I assume, mis-applying the idea that water can be carbonated by pumping carbon dioxide at high pressure into a bottle and capping it. Uncap the bottle, and the pressure is less; the dissolved carbon dioxide is no longer at chemical equilibrium and it comes out of the solution as gas bubbles—the effervescence.
    When water equilibrated with high CO2 from the soil zone passes into fractured limestone and dissolves calcite, that water can eventually reach a cave, where the water is under different geochemical conditions. Some of the CO2 comes out of solution, and CaCO3 may be precipitated as cave formations (speleothems). The amount of CO2 coming out can be considerable, but it is not in such amounts as to produce extensive gas bubbles as effervescence, as occurs when beer or sparkling wine is uncapped. Similarly, the visible “bubbles” that may appear at springs is rarely carbon dioxide. More often the roiling water at springs contains entrained air from the surface. Sometimes, abundant plant matter is present at springs, and oxygen bubbles from plants may be present. Also, chemical precipitates may be forming, of a variety of minerals.

  14. Ah, the Hopleaf, lucky you! The broad selection of Belgian beers is tasty, though the Hopleaf has gained a reputation for their rude bartenders. We go anyway because the beers — plus the mussels and frites! — are well worth it. I think the waitstaff are really not so harsh, but more on the cranky, inconsiderate side. On one visit, my crime was occupying a chair, and my punishment was having mussel shells routinely dumped down my back as plates were emptied at the trash can near our table. A clattery, garlicky ambiance that was more funny than annoying.
    Speaking of the Hopleaf, it’s just a block away from the Women and Children First bookstore. A while back you posted that this would be a part of your book tour. Are you still planning to be there on March 15th? I hope so, I have a book that needs signing! : )

  15. complementing what evilchemistry and Brandon said:
    Yeast is a Fungus. Hops is a natural antibiotic. It kills bacteria and preserves the yeast.
    Yeast is NOT a bacterium!

  16. At first, I chose to ignore Stephen from Alabama with a beer on his knee, because what can you say to a beer geek besides “Have a nice beer gut.”
    But today I saw this great Fran Leibowitz quote: “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”
    It follows, then, that infinitesimal people talk about beer.
    Infinitesimal, I mean, except for the beer gut.

  17. Oops, I meant Daniel Harper. Sorry, Stephen. You’re aces, even though I don’t know what you’re talking about.

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