Reviving the Ancient Craft of Zymurgy
September 07, 2012
My best friend and I have recently resumed practicing the ancient craft of zymurgy. No, we are not summoning the dead to do our bidding or transmuting lead into gold. We are summoning Saccharomyces cerevisiae to do our bidding, transmuting grains and water into liquid gold. In other words, we are making our own beers. Why make your own when you can readily buy it?
FOR SCIENCE: My friend Mark and I were both chemistry majors in college, and zymurgy is one of humanity’s oldest applications of chemistry. Beer making is a controlled series of enzymatic reactions and liquid/solid extractions. At the heart of the process, S. cerevisiae (brewer’s yeast) is doing the heavy lifting for us, converting sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Of course, the fact that very good beer can be produced by these processes might have had a little to do with why we chose to dabble in this area of applied biochemistry in graduate school as well.
FOR HISTORY: Shortly after wild grains were domesticated (around 9000 years ago), some Neolithic geniuses discovered that tasty and intoxicating beverages could be produced from them. Analysis of ancient pottery shows that people in what is now Iran were making barley beer 7000 years ago, and the Chinese were making rice beers at roughly the same time. The ancient Sumerians, the oldest civilization (ca. 3000 BC) for which we have written records, were so smitten with beer that they included the beer goddess Ninkasi in their pantheon. The Egyptians considered beer to be the best gift one could offer to the Pharaoh.
In Northern Europe, beer (specifically ale) was the preferred method of storing the calories of grain in a spoilage-resistant form. Ale was made on a small-scale at home or in the village alehouse. The brewing process required boiling, sterilizing the water, and the presence of alcohol and hops inhibited microbial growth in the finished product. Ale wasn't ubiquitous just because it was intoxicating. Ale was a food, and much safer to drink than untreated water in an age before germ theory.
Beer in the form of ales came to America early on, thanks to English and Dutch settlers' preference for ale over wine. The Pilgrims were forced to land at Plymouth Rock because the Mayflower’s crew was worried about not having enough ale for the voyage home. German immigrants in the 19th century brought lager beer, which grew in popularity rapidly, becoming the beer of choice for most Americans.
FOR TRADITION: I see the craft/home brewing phenomenon as an offshoot of the foodie movement, whose members aren't just interested in eating fine food, but also in food traditions, cooking, and, above all, the promotion of non-industrial foods. Just as industrial agriculture and processed foods came to dominate the American menu, "beer" came to be synonymous with the North American commercial pale, mild lagers as brewed by a few very large corporations. These are fine beers, but aside from long-time holdout Anchor Steam Ale and a few imports, the full spectrum of beer varieties was largely forgotten.
Then came two important events: the federal legalization of home-brewing in 1978 and the rise of microbreweries and craft breweries in the 1980s as exemplified by the Boston Beer Company, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and Kansas City’s own Boulevard Brewing Company. Americans looking for something different tried stouts, porters, IPAs, wheat beers, dark lagers, and other beer varieties and liked them! Enthusiasts now had experience with beers other than mild lagers, and brought their own DIY ingenuity to making the ultimate microbrews, beer made in the home. In other words, just like medieval Europe, except with a modern understanding of microbiology and chemistry.
Home-brewing in America has come full circle. George Washington brewed his own beer. Now, President Obama has caught the brewing bug and, with the help of his chefs, created a Honey Ale and a Honey Porter with the honey from a beehive on the White House grounds. There is a Honey Blonde too, but its recipe hasn’t been released. The recipes are a fusion of Old World traditions with a New World twist. Sort of like the USA.
If you are an adult of legal drinking age and you're interested in starting to homebrew, check out these MCPL resources.