Fermentation as an Art and Science in Brewing History

To kickstart the brew, Osmotar turned to the magic maiden Kalevatar, who first enlisted a squirrel to get a pine cone from the tallest tree in the forest. The poet concluded simply that “it brought no effervescence,” but in the days before the use of hops was decreed by the Rheinheitsgebot (Purity Law) of 1516, all manner of herbs, fruit, spices, and leaves were added to flavor and preserve beer. For the second try, Kalevatar sent a gold-breasted marten flying over the mountains to the “grottoes of the growler”—bear dens, that is. The bird deftly gathered the foam dripping from their lips and tongues, “the froth of anger.” Bear spit may have looked a lot like fermenting beer, but perhaps more importantly, many traditional brews such as Andean chicha were made by chewing the grain to break down starch into fermentable sugars. For the poet all that mattered was the brew still showed no effervescence. On the third and final attempt, the magic maiden convinced a bee to share its honey, a natural repository of yeast, “and the wedding-beer fermented; rose the live beer upward, upward…foaming higher, higher, higher…overflowing all the cauldrons.” The formulaic “third-time charmed” account makes poor Osmotar look pretty clueless, but within the convoluted narrative we can see fragments of her folk knowledge of fermentation and brewing, even though the details remain vague.

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Historian Judith Bennett has shown brewing was largely dismissed as women’s work in medieval times, but from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, European brewing was transformed from a domestic art practiced by women to an industrial undertaking dominated by men. While the beer may not have gotten any better during this transition, we do at least have more records of brewing practices. For example, George Watkin’s Compleat Brewer (1760) gives a useful account of the state of art in the mid-eighteenth century. In particular, he identified the two basic problems of pre-modern brewing: an “excess of fermentation” caused by “heat in the weather” and what “the brewers call the Fox…a soapiness of the beer, with an ill taste and disagreeable smell.” If brewing in unfavorable weather, Watkins recommended saving out some cold wort (unfermented brewing liquor) to add back in “if the head grows up too quickly, rises too high, and swells up into large blisters.” To avoid the “Fox,” now known to be caused by wild-yeast contamination, he counseled “cleanliness…the want of [which] is usually the cause of this mischief.” Writing a century before Pasteur, Watkins was still offering practical remedies that would likely have been familiar to Osmotar, but he stood on the brink of a revolution in brewing practice.

The historian Peter Mathias has written the classic account of the industrialization of English brewing in the eighteenth century. The creation of porter in about 1720 was a breakthrough in the history of fermentation that allowed mass-production for London’s rapidly growing market, since lighter ales could not stand the rough treatment of early industrial methods. As firms such as Whitbread and Barclays invested huge sums to expand capacity from 20,000 barrels a year to more than 200,000 by 1800, they simply could not afford to leave fermentation to chance.

Brewers developed new instruments and techniques to control the process. Thermometers were first used in the 1750s to regulate precise mashing temperatures and extract the greatest amount of sugar from any batch of malt. Hydrometers were calibrated by the 1780s to measure the specific gravity of wort to oversee the fermentation process and signal when the yeast had done its work. Deep fermentation vats helped to regulate temperatures while reducing the exposure to air and possible wild-yeast contamination. By the end of the century, coils were available to pipe cool water through the vats to “attemperate” the beer and prevent overviolent fermentation, thereby extending the brewing season into summer.

The technological innovations at the end of the eighteenth century, like the folk knowledge of Ostomar and Watkins, were developed by practicing brewers, long before Pasteur. They were based on careful observation, dedication to the craft, and a manic pursuit of cleanliness, which remain the essence of the successful brewer today. Moreover, the history of fermentation confirms what historians of science have argued for other fields—the supposed divide between laboratory scientists and practical mechanics is not as great as we have often supposed. Or to put it another way, the brewery is also a laboratory where ordinary people can, on an everyday basis, make contributions to both art and science.

Additional Reading

“The Annual Banquet.” Journal of the Institute of Brewing 1 (1895): 9.

Bennett, Judith M. Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Mathias, Peter. The Brewing Industry in England, 1700-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

“Rune XX: The Brewing of Beer.” The Kalevala. Available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune20.htm. Accessed August 9, 2013.

Samuel, Delwen. “Investigation of Ancient Egyptian Baking and Brewing Methods by Correlative Microscopy.” Science 273, no. 5274 (July 26, 1996): 488-90.

Sigsworth, E. M. “Science and the Brewing Industry, 1850-1900.” Economic History Review 17, no. 3 (1965): 536-50.

Watkins, George. The Compleat Brewer; or, The Art and Mystery of Brewing Explained. London: J. Coote, 1760.

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