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The good old days

An article was posted to the Buffalo Beer Geeks Facebook group yesterday by Willard Brooks, Buffalo craft beer scene staple. Its premise:

Today, brewing processes are guided by the tenets of a modern, positivist science. Like scientists in research laboratories, brewers, cellar-persons and other producers enroll instruments and equipment and utilize human technique and skill to understand and replicate ‘nature.’ While brewing is at its essence a promotion of natural fermentation processes, at the same time, producers want to bracket out the randomness and uncertainties of nature. Of the upmost importance is the control of nature. The brewery is to become a laboratory in that natural processes are to be disciplined by scientist/producers. This is the enduring struggle of producing modern beer: warding off naturally occurring organic and inorganic ‘contaminants’ that threaten a specific target product and production schedule by disciplining natural processes through the tools of technoscience. The struggle is ceaseless as neither opponent, science nor nature, will ultimately be victorious. Producers will always need to scrub, sanitize and otherwise separate their laboratory/brewery from the environment – bacteria, oxygen, and excess heat. Indeed this comprises the work of nearly every stage of the modern brewing process.

As a contrast, author Wes Eaton presents Cantillon, in Brussels. There they use open fermentation (as in, literally an open tank), limited temperature control and store the beer in areas with insects and spiders. Rather than try to harness nature and bend her to our whims, Cantillon works harmoniously with it to produce the final product.

The first time I read the article I thought it had much more of a “isn’t this so much better?” attitude than it actually does. It’s actually far more of a case study of a different way of going about things than a manifesto on how our “advanced” society has lost its way.

Which is good, because that’s a silly idea.

The appeal to nature

I try to be vigilant about the appeal to nature, because I tend to be guilty of it as well. On the whole, I consider things (especially foods) which are less processed to be better than things that have been more. This is because I can take beans, cheese and a tortilla and make a burrito that is inexplicably half the calories of one at a restaurant.

To take this to its logical conclusion, however, is not only to idly dismiss up to a few hundred years of advancement (depending on how far back you arbitrarily decide is far enough) but to ignore all the benefits that aren’t readily apparent: in the case of food production, namely, that at least in our country food scarcity is nowhere near as big a problem as it used to be.

But this is about beer, not burritos.

Not everything is a nail

Let me pause a moment to talk about Cantillon: if you haven’t had it, you need to. It is a damn good beer, and I’ll never turn down an opportunity to drink it.

Their go-with-the-flow methodology works perfectly… for them. I certainly don’t think they should change a thing, because it produces wonderful beer. If we tried it that way, however, there’s no way we would have just celebrated our one year anniversary. Every single person would take one sip of our beer and then, with varying degrees of politeness, put it down and never give us another dime.

Some people vehemently hate sour beer. I personally think they’re crazy, but not everyone is required to like everything I do (…yet). Some people love them. I don’t think there’s anyone who only drinks them: this would be a problem for us, as a laissez-faire fermentation setup would virtually guarantee some form of nasty bugger found its way into everything we made.

Older does not mean better

Here’s the thing about the good old days: the beer probably wasn’t very good, at least by our current standards.

Brettanomyces is a strain of yeast that’s one player in the Sour Avengers that assemble to create lambic beers. Like all sour components, some people love it and some can’t stand it. Funkrays, the barleywine we produced shortly before Thanksgiving, was so named because it contained brett. I was honestly surprised at the near-universal love of that beer, given its yeast’s divisive nature.

Here’s the thing: pretty much any beer aged sufficiently developed brettanomyces, back before they knew what it was. It was in the casks. It was desirable in some beers, but imagine every porter available tasted of horse blanket.

That’s to say nothing of Albany Ale, which Alan (yes, we link to Alan a lot, and if you don’t read his blog that’s your own fault) speculated was 10% abv and heavily hopped because it was made with incredibly mineral-and-salt infused spa water.

I believe I’ve talked about it before, but in Maureen Ogle’s book Ambitious Brew she makes the compelling point that the rise of the sex-in-a-canoe flavorless light American lagers was not some evil scheme foisted upon an unsuspecting and malleable public but instead in response to a market for beer that tasted clean and refreshing.

This is a pet peeve of mine. I’m not actually as indoctrinated in the cult of the new as my Web Nerd status at CBW might imply, but I do believe that on the whole we’re progressing as a species and that improvements are generally better than what came before.

Do I need or want high fructose corn syrup in my salsa? I do not. But I can make my own salsa; I cannot cure my own scarlet fever.

You were talking about beer, weren’t you?

At some point, I suppose. To return to the original article:

. . .I want to make two points that will hopefully spur new ways of thinking about craft beer production.

The first is the notion that, even in the most technologically and scientifically sophisticated production facilities, beer is co-produced by both scientific technique and nature. Like a river that is both actively guided by and shaping its respective banks, particular beer products are always the culmination of the enduring struggle between controlling and letting nature in. Secondly, in regards to the two worldviews I promote in this article, no single brewery is entirely on one or another of these paths. Instead, to varying degrees, particular brewery production cultures, standards, and norms, simultaneously draw from the wells of each.

Beer is both an art and a science (as shown in the Art of Beer and Beerology festivals). Its quality is simultaneously absolutely tied to the input of the brewer and also utterly independent: the first time a friend of mine came over to learn how I brewed he was dismayed to find that it is, by and large, sitting around and waiting while large quantities of water heat up.

When I first read the article that spawned this post I thought it was saying that this art, this je ne sais quoi, had been lost and woe is us, for we’ve lost our soul and why can’t there be real art anymore like Hendrix. Instead it doesn’t say that at all, which is good because every generation thinks that the next is ruining everything, when instead we always get on just fine even though Grand Theft Auto or Dungeons and Dragons or Elvis or flappers are here to take it all away. (Except for YOLO. That’s got to be the harbinger of something.)

A brewer’s mastery over microbiology in the form of microbe genocide and yeast wrangling should be a source of awe, not nostalgic regret. The beer in your glass is the product of four billion years of evolutionary success, and it should act like it. It does, and for that I am grateful.

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