Apr 17, 2014

Beer, technology and change

By Gregg Smith

Most everything we touch or consume has been shaped by technology. Indeed, technological invention has become such an expected part of life that we willingly embrace it, often without a thought to the consequences. Yet it can and does affect everything we do. For example: do you think you could do without computers? Of course not, without them it would be impossible to ride a train, drive a car, buy a ticket to a ballgame, watch television or drink beer.

The amazing thing about technology is its impact on virtually any point in history. Even lowly items have shaped our daily lives. Consider velcro, it changed sporting goods, fashions, baggage, purses and wallets. Changes in technological can even alter processes which have been the same for thousands of years, and when that change occurs it spins off even more innovation. It's become a second nature we gladly accept, even when it changes our taste.

Take brewing, which from the earliest times was a simple low tech process. Wet some grain and let it sprout. Dry it, then wet it again. Rinse off the sugars and let yeast ferment the liquid into beer. Basically that's all there is to brewing. Yet brewing has been a spawning ground and test bed for significant technological advances.

Science and brewing might go back as far as 820 AD when hops first made their introduction to beer. The reason was simple enough, it was an effort to preserve the beer. Although hops had limited application in food preservation that's not the end of beer's involvement with that subject. French scientist Lavoisier, in the late 1700's, was the first to show that fermentation took complex sugar molecules and broke them down into alcohol and carbonic acid. But it was another frenchman, in 1860, whose work drastically revolutionized daily life.

Most of us have grown up with pre-packaged food and we trust it, however things weren't always that way. In the mid 1800's Louis Pasteur was performing fundamental research on food spoilage and his pioneering work was a God-send to both the food industry and consumers. And though nearly everyone has heard of pasteurization, fewer know that his initial research was performed for the brewing industry and his work on the subject was titled "Studies on Beer". Thus study to lengthen the shelf life of beer gave us one of our most significant discoveries in health and diet.

James Watt was another who was aided by beer. His problem was thecoal mines in England, which had an inconvenient habit of flooding. Inconvenient indeed to the owners and even more inconvenient for the poor miners. Pumps were tried for a number of years but a reliable method of powering them didn't exist. This led Watt to thinking about some crude steam powered devices he'd seen. What kept these other devices from success was, in part, a lack of pressure. Watt needed a boiler built well enough to withstand the forces involved. His search pointed him to large brewery kettles which had to be built strong enough to withstand not only the weight of the liquid but also the extreme temperatures. So thanks to a brew kettle Watt was able to construct the first commercial steam engine. Today we'd call it a power plant. But when that engine was first paired with a pump or a boat or railroad it was called a miracle.

This isn't the end of the power plant connection. The device brewers used to rinse the sugars off their brewing grain is called a sparge ring. It's essentially a pipe with holes in it formed into a horizontal circle and hung around the inside top of the mash tun. To this day this piece of equipment is used for an even spray of water. And even in nuclear plants they are known by their original name - sparge rings.

The construction of sparge rings, power plants and even automobiles was affected by yet another brewhouse discovery, this time stumbled upon by a chronic tinkerer. Joseph Priestly was a cleric who didn't seem to have a knack for the pulpit, fortunately he married into some money and was able to let his curiosity lead him through life. One of his most notable discoveries was oxygen, but the brewhouse led him to another gas.

In 1777, Priestly was following up work for a paper he would call "Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air." He knew there was a mysterious layer of vapor which would often extinguish the candles brewers used to check their fermentation tanks. As he poked and pried he tried any number of practical experiments with this layer. One day he was sloshing some water around from one glass to another just above the fermenting beer when he noticed the water was getting fizzy. Eureka! Although he didn't know it, the "fixed air" he discovered was C02. While it is most closely associated with soft drinks, it's used by nearly every industry imaginable and is a common welding gas.

Of course there's also the story of Dr. Robert Gorrie who changed brewing and life with his search for a cure to malaria. The good doctor was convinced the malady his patients suffered was caused by the foul air of the swamps and that he could cure his patients if he could only "condition" the air.

Poor Gorrie, he was so close, he got the swamp part right, but it was the water in swamps, not the air, that was a breeding ground for his patients malaria. Regardless, a determined Gorrie doggedly pursued his bad air theory until he had discovered a way to cool the wretched air of the southern US, and he did it with amachine he invented that supplied refrigeration. Professor C.P.Linde improved upon Gorrie's prototype and introduced his own machine in 1873. By the early 1880's commercial models were appearing and it was brewers who first lined up for one of the new machines and their orders eventually made mass production possible. You see, before refrigeration brewers were forced into locating their breweries near an area of caves which would provide the cool temperatures needed for fermentation. Gorrie's work meant you could start a brewery anywhere and brew through the hottest of summer months.

It wasn't long until some, like Anheuser-Busch, adapted refrigeration machines to rail cars for shipping beer to virtually any place in America. There was such a demand for the new refrigerated cars that A-B soon had a lucrative subsidiary devoted to the manufacturing of rail cars. Combined with the development of the country's rail transport system it brought about a significant change in the American diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables became as common in the major cities as they were around the orchards in which they were grown. Thanks in part to breweries.

All this is not as farfetched as it seems, it's not incorrect to credit breweries for much of what we take for granted in our everyday lives. Just think of the string of events: brewery to steam engine to power plant to electrical generation to the refrigerator that holds your snacks and beers during the Super Bowl. Of course another path might look like, brewery to discovery of CO2 to improved welding to advanced fabrication to modern air travel; or you could spin off from that initial discovery to CO2 loaded lasers, to compact disc players and computer CD ROM or to fiber optics and virtually instant world-wide communication.

Even more significant is the place where all these innovations come together. In this case the path runs from Pasteur who discovered food preservation in a brewery, to Priestly and his "fixed air", to Gorrie's refrigeration, to new welding methods and lasers. All that comes together in a device which needs preserved food, cooled gas storage cylinders, high tech welds and lasers. That device helps you see news as it happens anywhere in the world, predicts the next day's weather, and can tell you your position on earth in a deep fog on the darkest of nights. All that happens because inventions connected with breweries are absolutely vital in building space vehicles.

We could cite even more brewery driven inventions and they'd range from light weight cans to breakthroughs in ceramics. At times these are driven by the brewery and at others they're adapted by the brewery, but all the while they're spinning off even newer inventions and creating even more impact. So the next time you sit back and enjoy a tall cool one think about the next technological change lurking beneath the surface in your glass.

Gregg Smith


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