Glass bottles

Beer—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

Throughout this series of blogs I have concentrated on “gadgets” (i.e. mechanical, electric, or electronic devices) that have fundamentally affected the world. So far, they have included the bicycle, the credit card, the elevator, the postage stamp, the toothbrush, and the wristwatch. Beer, being a liquid usually stored, transported, and sold in bottles, is not a gadget. However, its effect on the world has been significant, even primordial, perhaps surpassing all the others put together. I therefore believe that beer unquestionable deserves to join the ranks of what I like to call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”

What Is Beer?

At the dawn of human history, mankind’s principal concern was getting enough to eat. Only when food supplies became largely secure could clans and small tribes develop into larger and larger social structures, eventually leading to what we today recognize as modern society.

Perhaps surprisingly, many scientists who study the forces that helped to create modern society believe beer played a key role in its development.

Before recorded history, people used beer primarily as food rather than as a tipple to help them celebrate good times or to bring solace in bad ones. In this sense, beer can legitimately be considered an indispensable pillar on which today’s complex, world-girdling societies were built.

Research suggests beer was invented as a kind of food at least 13,000 years ago. In these very earlier days, mankind had discovered they could raise grain crops and chew the raw harvested grains. The problem was chewing grains was neither particularly easy nor pleasant, so humans invented bread, in which grains were the principal ingredient. But this was only a partial solution. Bread, as we know, is subject to going stale and rotting due to bacteria. Water, without which life cannot exist, is also subject to bacterial putrescence. The solution: Combine bread and water into a safer, more long-lasting source of nutrition and then ferment the result to produce alcohol, a natural anti-bacterial. The result was a bready-watery concoction we today call beer.

Hardly anyone today thinks of beer as food. However, the purpose of prehistoric beer was to provide a safe, long-lasting, easy to ingest and digest food. If it hadn’t started out that way, the modern world as we know it probably wouldn’t even exist.

The importance of beer in the development of increasingly complex societies is attested to by its mention in some of mankind’s earliest writings. For example, the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian code of law in ancient Mesopotamia dating back to about 1754 BCE, clearly describes laws regulating the production of beer and its consumption in beer halls. The “Hymn to Ninkasi” is both a prayer to the Mesopotamian goddess of beer and easily remembered instructions for brewing beer for the kingdom’s citizens, who were largely illiterate.

Virtually any substance containing starch can naturally undergo alcoholic fermentation. Thus, it is likely many cultures invented beer independently. However, it was also spread from one culture to another. In Europe, knowledge of beer brewing began to spread by Germanic and Celtic tribes as early as 3000 BCE.

These early European beers were rather different from what most people might think of as beer today, for two reasons.

  1. In addition to the alcohol created by fermentation of starch, early beer often contained fruits, honey, numerous types of plants, spices, and other substances. Such beers still exist today, notably in Belgium, but they are considered to be local and regional specialties, not what people normally think of when hearing the word beer.
  2. Early beer did not contain hops, without which today beer is not really beer. Hops, or hops flowers, is a delicate, pale green, cone-shaped flower full of resins used to give beer a touch of bitterness early in the brewing process and to enhance the aroma when added at the end of the brewing process. Hops also act as a preservative, extending the life of the beer. 

The earliest mention of hops being included in the European beer brewing process dates back to around 822 CE, in the writings of a Carolingian abbot. Beer was already being brewed and sold by monasteries at least a century before this document was written, as beer is still being brewed and sold by monasteries today.

In 1516, the Duchy of Bavaria (now part of Germany) adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law). Perhaps the oldest food-quality code, the Reinheitsgebot stipulates that the only ingredients allowed in beer are water, hops, and barley-malt.

During the Industrial Revolution, beer started moving away from artisanal production to industrial production. By the end of the 19th century, small-scale domestic production ceased to be significant in the worldwide beer market.

About this time, two technical developments help reshape the beer market.

Growing use of hydrometers (which measure the density of a liquid) and thermometers gave brewers greater control over the beer brewing process and more reliable testing of the results.

The Selling of Beer

Throughout most of history, beer production and consumption were largely local. However, in the mid-1700s began to change all of that. Beer started to be produced in factories (breweries) and transported to consumers in other locations. A number of big breweries emerged, whose output covered large national regions and sometimes entire countries. However, the coming of globalization in the late 20th century gave some of these companies the opportunity to become genuine behemoths, largely through acquisition of smaller rivals. Today just a handful companies have breweries and/or distribution networks virtually everywhere around the globe.

For example, in 2002 South African Breweries bought the North American Miller Brewing Company to found SABMiller, making it then the world’s second largest brewery after America’s Anheuser-Busch. In 2004, Belgium’s Interbrew and Brazil’s AmBev merged into InBev, becoming the world’s largest brewery. In 2007, SABMiller leap frogged InBev by acquiring Royal Grolsch, a Dutch brewer. Not to be outdone, in 2008 InBev bought American giant Anheuser-Busch to form the AB InBev Company to once again claim the top spot as the world’s largest beer producer, which it still is today. But hold on to your hat, or rather your mug, because this could change again any day.

Just over a century ago, the beer industry made an unintended and enduring contribution to product promotion, i.e. how products are presented to the public to attract attention and boost sales. The basic precept is: Platitudes and sweeping generalizations are seldom memorable, on the other hand, when underpinned by convincing specifics, a platitude or a generalization can take on the air of profound wisdom.

In the early 1900s, several breweries were vying for top spot in beer sales in the United States, the Joseph Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, being one of them. At the time, most beer advertising focused on the purity of the product, possibly as an homage to Reinheitsgebot. The problem was, everyone was claiming their beer to be pure, so no one was gaining any notice.

One day a curious advertising executive went the Schlitz brewery to get a better idea of how the product he was supposed to promote was actually produced. He was probably not looking specifically to understand what makes a beer “pure”; however, when he saw the multiple and meticulous steps necessary to make it pure, he was amazed. He decided to tell potential Schlitz customers, who were equally amazed. At last, purity had a definition; it was no longer simply a slogan. As a result, sales of Schlitz beers soared, and Schlitz zoomed to the top. I would also like to note in 1912 Schlitz introduced the use of brown beer bottles. Now accepted worldwide, brown bottles (or sometimes green bottles) prevent harmful solar rays from affecting the quality and stability of the beer inside.

The important point is, Schlitz’s procedures to ensure pure beer were no different from anyone else’s purity procedures. However, because Schlitz became the first to tell the story in a way that fascinated the public, it established a reputation that other brewers had difficulty following. It’s like the age-old question (at least since 1969), “Who was the first man on the Moon?” Everyone one knows the name Neil Armstrong, but many fewer people know the name Buzz Aldrin, who descended the ladder to the Moon’s surface right behind Armstrong. Both men did exactly the same thing and could easily have done so in reverse order. However, Armstrong was first and therefore embodied the moment, while Aldrin was second and therefore seemed to have walked in Armstrong’s shadow.

If you are a smoker (hopefully not), you may be familiar with Lucky Strike cigarettes’ slogan “It’s toasted.” Introduced in 1917, the slogan told smokers that the tobacco in Lucky Strikes were prepared by heat drying in special heating facilities rather than by the older method of sun drying. Heat drying was supposed to confer extra desirable attributes to the tobacco. The fact was, when Luckies launched the slogan, many other cigarette manufacturers were already also using the process, but they never mentioned it. So Luckies and heat drying (“It’s toasted”) became synonymous.

An Acquired Taste

I have been living in Brussels for some 46 years, after moving from Los Angeles in 1974. Before coming here, I drank no beer at all, since about the only thing available in the U.S. at that time was lager (pilsner), which to me tasted like juiced up dishwater. This was before the microbrewery and specialty craft beer boom that started a decade or so later.

When it comes to making specialty beers, Belgium has been way ahead of the curve—by centuries. For the uninitiated, Germany may be more strongly associated with beer in general; however, for specialty beers, there’s no place like Belgium. This small European country (population 11.3 million, about the size of Maryland) has a true beer culture. Beer to Belgium is like wine to France.

I have a firm rule about trying new beers, or anything else I’ve never tasted. I always give it a second chance. Why? Because frequently when you try something new, you already have some kind of preconceived notion about what it is and how it should taste. Often you are wrong, so your first experience can be a shock. It is only after the second experience, when you know what to expect, that you can truly judge if you enjoy it enough to go further, or you abandon it.

On first try, what is now my favorite Belgian beer so shocked me it that I nearly spat it out on the floor. The second try wasn’t so bad, so I then tried it a third time, a fourth time, etc. I can hardly imagine how many hundreds (nay thousands) of liters of this beer, which on first try I could barely keep in my mouth, I have subsequently joyously poured down my gullet.

The name of this now beloved beer is Chimay, since it was originally brewed in a Trappist abbey just outside the village of Chimay (the Walloon region of Belgium).

The beverage is commonly marketed in three different versions: Chimay red, Chimay white, Chimay blue. (The names referr to the color of the label and bottle cap, not the color of the beer.)These are fairly strong brews with Chimay red measuring 7% alcohol by volume, Chimay white at 8% AVV, and Chimay blue at 9% AVB. There is a fourth one called Chimay des Moines (Chimay of the Monks), which I have encountered only in the monastery’s tavern-restaurant. When I saw it on the menu, I asked the waiter, “What’s this?” “Oh, that’s Chimay white with 15% water added. The monks working in the abbey are allowed to drink beer all day. Much of this is manual work. The water is added to make the brew more hydrating and to reduce the risk of them getting tipsy and not properly attending to their chores.”

Beer and Computers

Brewing is truly big business. It is the highest consumed alcoholic beverage (ahead of wine and spirits), and even rivals many non-alcoholic drinks. In 2018, sales of ABInbev, headquartered in Louvain, Belgium, reached $55 billion with an estimated global market share of 28 percent. The second top beer brewer worldwide was Heineken Holdings with annual sales of around $25 billion, followed in third place by Asian Group Holdings with annual sales of around $19 billion

Needless to say, managing such far-flung operations requires a massive amount of sophisticated computer power, not only to ensure consistent quality and availability of such broad portfolios of products, but also to predict and protect against currency fluctuations, changes in national laws, political instability, disruption of transport systems, etc. For these and other facets of these globe-girdling operations, computers are indispensable. On a smaller scale, even tiny microbrewers and craft brewers increasingly depend on computer programs to maintain quality and availability.

Another area where computing power is being employed is in attempts to determine exactly what products brewers (large and small) are actually producing.

For example, in 2018 the world’s first scientific beer atlas was produced by Belgian scientists after three years of work. Belgian Beer: Tested and Tasted provides detailed descriptions of 250 Belgian beers, plus a handful of foreign beers.

According to Professor Kevin Verstrepen (University of Leuven), one of the lead researchers, the study “was born out of the frustration that there was a lack of objective data and figures to describe and compare Belgian beers in a scientific way. Most beer books offer a subjective assessment based on tasting sessions.”

The study measured 270 parameters such as color, bitterness, alcohol content, sugar content, protein content, plus more than 250 molecules that contribute to a beer’s aroma. Seventy of those aroma molecules were used for a scientific description of each beer studied.

By feeding all the data into computer models and using advanced computing methods, the scientists were able to create analytical and sensory profiles of all the sampled beers. “This chemical analysis taught us a lot about the beers but was not sufficient to determine the taste of the beer,” Prof. Verstrepen said. To tackle this problem, a 15-member panel was selected and trained to blind-taste each of the beers and to describe the taste.

True to its objectivity, the book doesn’t name the “best beers,” but rather awards a “panel selection stamp” to the 20 that received the highest scores from the tasting panel.

A surprising feature of the book is the inclusion of low- and non-alcoholic beers, which are traditionally looked down upon by beer enthusiasts. “We now have a second generation of low- and non-alcoholic beers which are much better than the previous generation,” said Prof. Verstrepen. “Brewers are experimenting with the recipes, giving these beers more character.”

Also true to objectivity, the book has a clear message for those beer lovers who only drink certain Belgian larger (pilsner) beers and dismiss all the rest. Belgian lagers, the book says, are very similar; the differences between are really subtle.

Although not included in the study, Prof. Verstrepen defended Budweiser (American) and Heineken (Dutch), which are often ridiculed by Belgians. “These are technically good beers,” he says. “But they are less bitter than their Belgian counterparts, which means they are less appreciated here.”

Publication of Belgian Beer: Tested and Tasted is not the end of the line. The book is part of an on-going project to improve chemical understanding of how the aroma of a beer is formed. The objective is to improve and change beers. For example, to give beers a fruitier aroma by adjusting the chemical structure.

While computing power is helping the development of the beer industry, beer may have made a major contribution to the development of the computing itself, at least in England. As recounted by Peter Denning, Ubiquity’s editor-in-chief.

“I visited the Computer Lab at Cambridge on sabbatical in 1975. Every afternoon when winding down and getting ready to go home, nearly everyone in the lab adjourned to a nearby pub for a few beers and a lot of camaraderie. They often tossed around technical proposals, and got to work on them the next day.  They said that the tradition of adjourning to the pub was ancient and went back to the days when Maurice Wilkes led the development of one of the world’s first stored-program computers. I always had the impression that their success at accelerating their research time lines and quality was connected with the social process supported by the pub.”

“I don’t know if other computer labs or companies have such a tradition, but it definitely helped at Cambridge.”