Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Art and Science of Brewing Beer

Standing on the shoulders of giants is an expression from the 12th century, credited to Bernard of Chartres. It means that we can see farther than our predecessors not because our vision is better, but because we are lifted up by their experiences and wisdom. This is an excellent description of the art and science of brewing beer.

Brewing predates writing (and Instagram), so we’ll never know who invented or discovered this technology, or exactly when it happened. However, there are clues. These clues are being followed by “The Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines and Extreme Beverages,” Patrick McGovern. His actual title is Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania (file that under: Cool Jobs You Wish You Had). His investigations include examining the sticky residue inside old clay jars to figure out who was drinking what, when.

Based on this type of evidence, we can say for sure that the earliest known alcoholic beverage was grain-based and dates back about 9,000 years. About 5,000 years ago, folks in the Middle East started using barley and we got a little closer to what we think of when we say, “beer.” We know that the practice of making and drinking beer was well-established by this time because this is about the same time that writing was invented. The first things they wrote down fall into two categories: Stuff We Have Counted and Stories We Keep Telling. Included in these stories was the Goddess of Grain and Drunkenness, Ashnan. According to her story, one day she got too drunk to go to work, so humans were created to serve the gods.

In these ancient times, beer could be much safer to drink than water, as its alcohol killed numerous microbes. Brewers were using other plants to flavor and bitter their beer, like dandelion, burdock root and marigold. The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when early brewers began using hops to bitter their beer, and the rest is literally history..

During all this time, people only drank what we would today consider “craft beer.” Beer was made in small batches, by independent owners. If you don’t remember a single other thing from this post, know this: beer-making is, at its heart, an agrarian pursuit. Anyone who has ever been involved with fresh produce knows that this year’s raspberry is not identical to last year’s raspberry; conditions like sunshine and soil affect the fruit. Modern beer lovers learned the hard way that large corporate factories are not set up to respond to the subtle differences between one crop and the next. It takes a human being with brains and heart to get the best result from barley, hops, yeast and water -- and a whole lot of giants.