Friday, January 23, 2015

Proof: The Science of Booze

Wired's articles editor Adam Rogers (@jetjocko) is the author of Proof, and who better to write a book with the subtitle The Science of Booze than a former science journalism fellow at MIT?

The bookjacket says Proof is "higher in Canada."
A former science journalism fellow at MIT who brings a perspective like this to the topic:
The bartender put the glass of beer in front of me, its sides frosting with condensation. I grabbed it, felt the cold in my hand, felt its weight as I lifted it. I took a sip.

Time stopped. The world pivoted. It seems like a small transaction -- a guy walks into a bar, right? -- but it it the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history.... The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It's the apotheosis of human life on earth. It's a miracle.
The rest of the book explores the miracle in less fulsome language than this passage from the introduction, but it's good to know we're in the hands of someone who cares.

Proof takes us, chapter by chapter, through the whole process of alcoholic beverages. Here's the table of contents:
  1. Yeast
  2. Sugar
  3. Fermentation
  4. Distillation
  5. Aging
  6. Smell and Taste [the sensory experience of drinking]
  7. Body and Brain [the biological and sociological experience]
  8. Hangover
While there is plenty of science in the book -- physics, chemistry, biology, mycology, even sociology if that counts -- it's not a science book. There aren't any equations, graphs, or diagrams (even in the handful of places where a diagram would have been helpful). There is perhaps as much history and biography of science as science proper, all in keeping with the theme that alcohol and human culture are inseparably related. (Faulkner's "Civilization begins with distillation" is referenced a couple of times.)

I learned a lot of history in the first couple of chapters -- Pasteur's role, for example, in proving that yeast produced alcohol (fermentation was previously thought to be what we'd call a purely chemical process), and the remarkable career of Jokichi Takamine, who not only figured out how to break starches down into sugars without malting, but also patented adrenaline and paid for those cherry trees in Washington, DC.

I also learned about a lot of places I'd like to visit, like yeast merchant White Labs' tasting room, where
all the beers on tap... are identical except for one critical variable. They share the same barley, the same hops, same water, same temperature. What [head of laboratory operations Neva] Parker hopes to show off is the difference in fermentation caused by yeast alone.
Different yeasts are, of course, key tools in Four Roses' bag of success, and just today an article quoted Glenmorangie's Bill Lumsden saying about yeast strains, "Unquestionably in my tiny little mind, that's the next big thing in terms of bringing new flavours to bear."

I learned a little about making rum in the tropics, and more than I wanted to know about the use by some rum makers of
a "dunder pit," a hole in the ground into which they throw leftovers from the still after production, maybe some fruit or molasses, and sometimes lime or lye to keep down acid levels. They let it sit there. For years. And this muck -- they really call it "muck" -- gets added back into the still.
Sort of puts "sour mash" in perspective.

I learned that the "double dispense" business with Guinness isn't just theater, but helps preserve the head. (On a sadder note, the passage with UC Davis's Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science Charlie Bamforth represented another step in my realization that I never have known and never will know how to drink beer properly. It's just too complicated.)

I learned that the history of distillation... well, let's just say it's complicated, and Rogers goes into a lot more, and a lot earlier, possibilities than I'd previously come across in casual Googling. In particular, Maria Hebraea is presented as a possible (though provisional) inventor of the alembic still that eventually (as in maybe eight hundred years later) led to vodka, brandy, and whiskey. And I learned that St. Albert the Great -- whom Rogers, oddly, refers to as a "philosopher/priest/magician" and "a big shot among...Dark Ages alchemists" -- included two recipes for aqua ardens ("fire water") in his encyclopedic writings.

There are some darlings in Proof I'm glad Rogers didn't kill:
No kidding, [St. George Spirit's master distiller Lance Winters'] apricot eau de vie is the philosophical qualia of apricot. It is like drinking the design spec.
"You will be amazed that water can feel different on your palate."
He's not wrong. I would be amazed.
As for wormwood-free anisette replacements [for absinthe] like Pernod, well, they're fine for poaching shrimp.
...23 percent of people do not get hangovers (the scientific term for them is "jerks")....
He reminds us throughout that he has his own perspective on the subject:
I agree to receive [Terresentia's] free booze, and a couple weeks later, a cardboard box arrived by FedEx, marked "fragile." Inside are seven tiny glass sample bottles, their caps sealed with tape; a gin, a tequila, a citrus vodka, a rum, a brandy, and two bourbons. I open each in turn -- well, I ignore the citrus vodka, because come on.
Rogers contrasts the high speed, high tech "aging" of Terressentia with the old school, deep time approach of the brandy maker Osocalis, whose Dan Farber put his finger on a regrettable effect of the microdistillery explosion:
"If people can say, 'Hi, here's my three-year-old craft brandy for sixty dollars,' it really discourages the longer-term exercises."
(Craft whiskey drinkers may well envy getting three whole years for only sixty dollars.)

I was particularly interested in the "Smell and Taste" chapter, since (apart from unserious home experiments) that's the point where I start getting involved in booze. I felt better after reading how much time and effort was invested in figuring out how to talk about odors and tastes -- with the first flavor wheel invented by Morten Meilgaard in the early 1970s. Unless and until I get good at it, I plan to use a flavor wheel myself when making tasting notes. Even the simpler wheels give me a lot bigger vocabulary than I have left to my own devices, although I won't at all be pleased the first time I realize that that note I can't quite place is "sweaty."

The chapter on hangovers is a record of disappointment and ignorance. There's a lot of interesting information, both scientific and anecdotal, and it all boils down to this:
"What causes hangover? Nobody really knows," says epidemiologist Jonathan Howland. "And what can you do about it? Nobody knows."
What we really want from science is a way to drink as much as we want without getting hung over, though in a pinch we'd be satisfied with an instant cure for hangover. The research is ongoing, and I suppose it's an open question whether we'd be better off as a society if nobody got hung over.

These are some of the highlights of Proof, and there's a whole lot more science, history, booze personalities and anecdotes to be found. I highly recommend the book to anyone who would read this far into this post (I'll mention that mine was a review copy, in case you want to weigh that with my recommendation). In the introduction, Rogers provides his own reason for reading -- and for writing -- the book:
If you love something, my theory is, you're supposed to ask what makes that thing tick. It's not enough to admire the pretty bottles filled with varicolored liquids behind the bar. You're supposed to ask questions about them-- what they are and why they're different, and how people make them.
Asking the questions, and finding out the answers, makes scientists of us all.

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