The Science and Humanity of Booze
By Alex Villasuso
I am a young guy. To sit here and philosophize about the meaning of life would be silly. But one thing I can say for sure is that my most memorable adult moments in life so far have involved sipping (or chugging) some form of alcohol: from that pint of liquid goodness atop the Guinness Brewery in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, to the day I poured my first five homebrews for friends and family to enjoy. Well – er – they enjoyed four of my home-crafted beers; one was a real drain pour. Today, I am striving to make a career out of brewing beer – and that, of course, mandates understanding the origins and science behind it. After reading Proof: The Science of Booze, by Adam Rogers, editor of the technology magazine Wired, I grasped just how huge an impact firewater has had on humanity, not just in my lifetime, but on civilization as we know it.
How Alcohol Changed the World
After researching the origins of booze, Rogers concluded the discovery of alcohol ultimately influenced man to ditch the nomad lifestyle. Instead of a life spent roaming and foraging for food, man decided to settle down in one place in order to sow and harvest grain… to make the good stuff. So, in essence, one might say we can thank alcohol for the launch of modern civilization.
The production of alcohol all comes down to two basic things: fermentation and distillation. Fermentation, the process by which a fungus – yeast – turns simple sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol, existed long before we humans showed up on this planet. For the past 10,000 years, mankind has sought to understand how alcohol leads to a buzz, but it wasn’t until recent times when scientists discovered just how important yeast is in the understanding of basic life.
“Yeast was the first eukaryote — that is, the first creature with cells and nuclei—to have its genome sequenced in a science lab. That was in 1996; biologists were in a rush to see what its DNA looked like because, in a way, yeasts are the fundamental unit of cell biology. Yeasts grow quickly and easily in a lab, but because they have nuclei just like we do, they are an excellent model system for life like us,” said Rogers. “All that, and they ferment. Assuming that combustion—fire—is civilization’s most important chemical reaction, then yeast are responsible for the chemistry in the number-two slot.”
The Miracle of Fermentation
Fermentation was a natural process, created by nature over time. It was about as close to a miracle as it gets. Eight thousand years after the first domestication of fermentable yeast for the purpose of making alcohol, the process of distillation was invented.
“Distillation, though, is technology. Human beings invented it,” said Rogers. “It requires the ability to boil a liquid and reliably collect the resulting vapors, which sounds simple. But to do it, you have to learn a lot of other skills first. You have to be able to control fire, work metal, heat things and cool them, make airtight, pressurized vessels. You need a big brain with a wrinkled cortex, maybe some opposable thumbs. But most of all, you need a desire to change your environment instead of just live with what you have. Distillation takes intelligence and will. To distill, literally or metaphorically, requires the hubris to believe you can change the world.”
“But none of those changes will break the human connection to alcohol across deep time. Our history with the stuff is our history on earth, a history of humans becoming modern, tool-using, technology-making creatures.”
If you’d like to read more of Adam Roger’s PROOF: THE SCIENCE OF BOOZE, visit amazon.com or your favorite book retailer.
Alex Villasuso is a law professional in Chicago by day and a beer aficionado by night. South Florida Opulence welcomes Alex is our newest contributing columnist. Be sure to check out the next issue for the latest in craft beer trends.