Science You Can Drink To

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Want an easy way to make new friends? Learn how to brew your own beer. When I moved from Grand Rapids to Chicago with my wife and dog in 2009, we really didn’t know anybody else who lived here, which was a little scary. We weren’t lonely for long, though, thanks to a couple of fortunate discoveries.

First, people really like golden retrievers, and we have a very friendly one; and second, people REALLY like it when you give them free beer, and I make more beer at home than I should drink by myself. Aside from helping me make new friends, homebrewing – the proper name for making beer at home – gives me a great opportunity to fuse my love of science and my love of cooking (of course, cooking IS science, but I think that the common understanding treats them as separate subjects).

To make beer, you must first strip sugars from different kinds of grain (or other starchy substances like rice and corn) using hot water, and then cook those sugars with hops (dried flowers from a special herb that act as preservatives, and also give beer its bitter taste) and other flavorings into a soup called wort. You then feed the wort to yeast (and other microorganisms like bacteria) for days or weeks (or months!) of fermentation, where the yeast converts the sugar in the wort into alcohol (the exact amount of alcohol is calculated by comparing the amount of sugar in the beer before fermentation to the amount after fermentation). I’ll let you catch your breath a minute. OK, I know that sounds quite complicated, but the truth of the matter is, if you can make a really big bowl of oatmeal, you can probably make beer.

What makes brewing so fun to me, is that every step in the process can be manipulated, like a series of little experiments, to tweak every facet of your beer to your liking. Adjusting the heat of the water used for stripping the sugars from grain can change the texture of the finished beer on your tongue. There are dozens of different varieties of hops that can be added to the wort at different times, each with slightly different flavoring and bittering properties. Different yeasts can produce remarkably different beers – like Budweiser versus Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – from identical batches of wort. The possibilities are literally endless.

There was a recent commercial that painted homebrewers as mad scientists who turn their homes into laboratories, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that there’s a lot of truth to that. My dining room is stocked with buckets for fermentation and bottles for filling and random tubes for moving beer from buckets to bottles. I have a drawer full of digital thermometers and tools for measuring the amount of sugar dissolved in a solution. I have plans to install a big chest freezer to control fermentation temperatures. (I have a very patient wife!)

Of course, my home setup is nothing compared to the real labs of brewing scientists, which is a real title that people can actually earn! If you’ve got a background in one of the hard sciences, you might consider applying to the brewing science program at UC Davis, where you could work in the pilot brewery lab making beer all day (check out this video for a tour with Professor Charlie Bamforth). Students dissect every aspect of beermaking, from the effects of oxygen on foam retention to the best way to culture a large yeast supply. Making beer is just a hobby for me, but for these scientists it is their livelihood.

So by now you probably get a few things: I like beer; I like making beer; and making beer is a scientific process. So what? The point of this post wasn’t to convince you to like beer, or to drink more of it. Rather, I think it’s important to remember that we can use science to study and improve nearly everything in our lives, even seemingly simple things like beer. Some people still try to separate science from “the rest of” their lives, but that is simply an exercise in futility. Though we might not see it or understand it, there’s a science to everything.

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