The Science of Booze
Friday, June 13, 2014
A Few Adam Rogers-Approved Cocktails to Get the Weekend Started
Excerpt: From the Introduction to Proof: The Science of Booze
I’ve had perfect bar moments. They led to this book. Here’s one: I was supposed to meet a friend for an after-work drink on a swamp-sticky Washington, D.C., summer day, and I was late. I rushed across town to get to the bar and showed up a mess, the armpits of my shirt wet, hair stuck to my forehead.
The bar, though, was cool and dry — not just air-conditioner cool, but cool like they were piping in an evening from late autumn. The sun hadn’t set, but inside, the dark wood paneling managed to evoke 10 p.m. In a good bar, it is always 10 p.m.
I asked for a beer; I don’t remember which one. The bartender nodded, and time slowed down. He put a square napkin in front of me, grabbed a pint glass, and went to the taps. He pulled a lever, and beer streamed out of a spigot. 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 is the fulcrum on which this book rests, and it is the single most important event in human history. It happens thousands of times a day around the world, maybe millions, yet it is the culmination of human achievement, of human science and apprehension of the natural and technical world. Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that the production of beer induced human beings to settle down and develop permanent agriculture — to literally put down roots and cultivate grains instead of roam nomadically. 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.
Two miracles, actually. It took 200 million years of evolution to make the first one happen. Fermentation, the process by which a fungus we call yeast turns simple sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, is a breathtakingly complex bit of nanotechnology. Fermentation and ethanol happened on earth long before we humans got here, and ethanol’s pleasant effects on our brain are a mere side effect of its use as a chemical weapon in the invisible, eternal war among the microbes with whom we share our planet.
Despite its importance in all sorts of industrial chemistry, the biochemistry of fermentation is still fodder for research. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the greatest chemists and biologists in the world were arguing about what yeast was. Figuring out that Saccharomyces cerevisiae — brewer’s yeast — was alive and was the thing that did the fermenting made Louis Pasteur famous and gave rise to modern cell biology. The genetics of the present-day versions of fungus still have secrets to tell: when it developed the ability to make ethanol, and why, and when we humans tamed it to our own ends.
It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago that we humans took control of fermentation for ourselves, entering into a partnership with that fungus long before we knew what it was. We domesticated that microbe, the same way we domesticated dogs and cattle, to do a job: make drinks.
Two thousand years ago, give or take, we humans built the second miracle for ourselves: distillation, one of the earliest tools used by the earliest scientists. Invented by alchemists searching for the fundamental spirits that inhabit everything on earth, the still accidentally gave rise to an entirely new way to convey flavor and aroma, and an array of drinks that became a staple of human consumption. Plus it gave rise to the modern study of chemistry and made possible our petroleum-based economy.
Those miracles make the bar moment possible; what happens in the seconds and hours after that first sip, or second cocktail, is no less amazing. Ethanol has a flavor unlike anything else, and it conveys other flavors unlike anything else. Making it is a craft — the people at Wild Turkey or Abita or E. & J. Gallo don’t have to understand molecular biology, yeast enzyme kinematics, metallurgy, or the organic chemistry of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (Though they often do understand those things.) They know that the shape of a still, and the metal it’s made of, changes how a spirit tastes, and they know that different wood in the aging barrels alters the flavor of the final product. (Japanese oak makes whisky taste spicier than the American oak used in bourbon and Scotch. Weird, right?)
People sometimes think science is about discovery. But the action in science, the fun part of doing it (or reading about it), isn’t answers. It’s questions, the stuff we don’t know. Behind every step of the process that produces fermented beverages and then distills those into spirits, there is deep science, with a lot of researchers trying to figure it all out.
That’s what this book is about. The bar moment is the culmination of the human relationship with our environment, the pinnacle of our technology, and a critical point for understanding our own bodies, brains, and behavior. William Faulkner is supposed to have said, “Civilization begins with distillation,” but I’d push even farther — beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, mead, sake . . . all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass.
Excerpted from PROOF: THE SCIENCE OF BOOZE, © 2014 by Adam Rogers. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.