The accidental science of beer

Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!
Beer is alive I tell you! Alive!

Our post on Friday prompted some needling from Alan at A Good Beer Blog: brewing great beer isn’t hard — it’s a ‘simple, traditional skill’. Then today, as promised, Ed chipped in with a typically sharp post querying how we ended up in what seems a topsy-turvy world where stainless steel automation is ‘craft’ and beer brewed using traditional methods isn’t. (It is to us, but our attempts to reclaim the word to include cask ale seem to have failed.)

With all that in our minds, it was odd that, from beyond the grave, Michael Jackson should chip in from the pages of an issue of The Times from 1980, reminding us that brewing’s status — art, craft, science, or something else? — has been confused for a long time, and is far from settled:

For all the painstaking research that has been done on the subject, brewing remains less of an exact science that it is an art. “Only recently have we begun to understand what a remarkable art it really is”, Professor Anthony Rose, a microbiologist wrote in the Scientific American some years ago. “The brewmaster, by trial and error, has been manipulating some of the subtlest processes of life.”

(Rose’s article, ‘Beer’, appeared in the June 1959 edition of the magazine, and lives behind a paywall here.)

Do brewers with degrees, labs and reference libraries, who understand why they do what they’re doing, make better beer than those who just knew it worked?

14 thoughts on “The accidental science of beer”

  1. Science is not only lab coats and books and years of studying. There is an intuitive science that comes from trial and error or from learning from a master of a given craft. Cooking is a good example of that. There’s a lot of science involved in it, but when you know how to cook, you just know how to do it. You known intuitively how ingredients will react to temperature, other ingredients and different processes, techniques, etc. And that is also science.

    Either way, I refuse to call beer “art”. “Art” is, IMO, a hugely overrated word. Someone can fart to a microphone and be celebrated as an artist. Design on the other hand, is something higher than art, because a designer must create something useful, therefore, Beer, if anything, is (scientific) design.

    1. I realised something while I was brushing my teeth last night. Jackson misses the point when he says “exact” science. Nobody is talking about “exact”, and there are a lot of sciences that aren’t “exact”. Beermaking will never be an exact science because in the (arguably) most critical part of the process, the fermentation, you are dealing with a living organism that will have some sort of behaviour, and I don’t think there is a way to predict behaviour exactly.

      1. PS: In answer to your question at the end. Technically speaking, yes. The rest will depend on how the drinker feels about it. I have enjoyed beers that were technically awful.

  2. Yes, “art” is silly and citing beer writing from the 1980s leads us to silly as I go recall the haircuts and even having had one. Don’t make me point to the sleeve cover art of 45s from then. I can. Don’t make me.

    This is where “craft” actually gets one some actual traction as a word. When not bastardized with co-opting by small and medium scale industrialists, it means things like “crafted” as in skilled work but also “the craft” in the sense of a coven of evil-doers foisting their product on you… or maybe just something like a guild. But, sadly, the small and medium scale industrialists have in fact bastardized it all.

    So maybe just ditch science and art and craft and think of skill. You can acquire the skill. People far stupider than you have. Look around.

  3. I wouldn’t normally point to a dictionary definition (used to have an English teacher who got very angry when people began essays with them) but this one for ‘art’ is interesting.

    Arin the sense of “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice” sounds quite like brewing/cooking; as might “works produced by human creative skill and imagination”.

    (Though I realise not everyone is a fan of beers that exhibit imagination, where it manifests as (why not…) silliness!)

  4. I’d say that understanding the ingredients and how they work together is as important as understanding at microbiological level. Probably more so in fact. Even in big breweries, it is process and ingredients, backed up where needed by science and analysis.

    Even when things go wrong, it is usually experience that will tell you why, even if that experience is come by, by way of a degree in brewing, though usually that won’t be needed.

    On the wider issue of craft, I kind of agree with Alan where he says “sadly, the small and medium scale industrialists have in fact bastardized it all. ” Bastardised it while doing what the bigger industrial brewers do, but in a more hip way, aimed at a different market in fact. But with e same end in view. To brew beer to make money.

  5. Science is figuring out what works, art is using that knowledge to express yourself. Brewing – or at least “craft brewing” involves both to some extent.

    Which makes me think, perhaps that is a better definition of craft brewing: beer brewed for self expression, rather than purely being a profit maximising exercise.

  6. Once again, I feel like we’re trying to define the undefinable. PyO is correct—Why does art and science need to be mutually exclusive? There are both creative and scientific aspects to brewing. Chemistry and physics do not negate skill and artistry. I’d imagine that their are individuals who are innately great brewers. I can learn to cook, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to become a professional chef. Those individuals have an artistry I don’t possess—can’t the same be said for brewing? Picasso was a masterful technical painter, but that’s not what he’s known for. It was his ability to break of the rules of technical painting that allowed his true artistry to show. Making a technically perfect IPA doesn’t mean you’ve made the best IPA, but at the same time disregarding the science of brewing probably isn’t going to yield the best results, either.

  7. Brewing is not science, but it makes use of scientific knowledge, particularly chemistry and biochemistry.

    Is brewing art? Well, “art” means whatever you want it to mean, so you’ll have to work that one out for yourself.

    I feel py0 is on to something, but his/her definition of science is a bit too broad for me. But the idea of brewers using scientific knowledge to express themselves: yes, right on.

  8. The scientific method involves the creation of a theory, prediction using theory, testing by observation, and subsequent refinement and retesting with results that should be reproducible (to show it wasn’t chance that produced the result).

    Brewing makes much use of this – we know a lot about the brewing process – eg the behaviour of yeast (though far from everything here!), the malting process, the activity of enzymes in the mash, water chemistry and so on; and brewers make good use of this knowledge to tune their brewing process. As Tandleman says, experience will often pin down any issues that may arise – but in some ways this is science – using prior observation to create a theory about what the issue was, and putting into practise a process to correct that problem.

    I don’t know about “art” – there can certainly be inspiration (eg in the formulation of the recipe, in what the brewer is looking to achieve), but then it comes back to process and experience to produce the desired result.

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