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Beer Column: Beer Mysteries

By February 14, 2012Top News

February 2012

By Jack Kenny

This world of ours is so vast and complex, and we know so little about it (except for a few people I know) that we find ourselves brushing up against the unknown on quite a regular basis. The most common of mysteries facing human beings is “Why me?” Perhaps the oldest is “Why are we here?”

Beer is mysterious, too. The first person who encountered the primal ancestor of beer – encountered rather than developed, for surely it was an accidental discovery – was no doubt delighted by the unusual effect that the liquid had upon him or her, and mystified as well. “How could such a thing come to be?” she wondered. “All I did was leave this bowl of crushed barley out in the rain for a few days.”

Once the brewster learned how to repeat the process and refine it, the mystery disappeared, except for one critical part. Something was turning simple barley water into a heady liquor. Was it in the grain? The water? The sky? Eventually the brewer found that removing and saving some of the foam from the brew as it underwent its mysterious change would help in starting a new batch. Nobody knew what this stuff was, so they called it God Is Good. Well, at least the British did.

This particular beer mystery endured from the beginning of beer until the middle of the 19th Century, when Louis Pasteur found by looking in his microscope that yeast – for that’s what the substance was – was composed of uncountable billions of single-celled organisms that consumed sugars from the barley and passed along carbon dioxide and alcohol in payment. Mystery solved.

Some years back a youngster asked, “Dad, why is there foam on beer? Why isn’t there any on my soda?” I was caught in the headlights. I knew part of the answer, but not all of it. On the spot I made up something so the child would go away, but I realized that I had some more science to learn. A concise answer to the question can be found on a website called lifeslittlemysteries.com.

First, soda and Champagne do create heads, but they don’t last they way a beer head should. That’s because beer contains albumins, proteins that form bonds with hop compounds that allow the bubbles to stay alive longer. The website quotes Cornell Professor Karl Siebert, who says that the beer head is based on a combination of gas, alcohol level, pH, proteins, and bitter compounds. The higher the alcohol level, the shorter the duration of the head.

Many people who consume beverage alcohol are fascinated by the condition known as the hangover, to the extent, in our society, that we now have a second motion picture with that word as the title. And despite the rich archive of knowledge and lore about the hangover and its so-called cures, most folks don’t know how to deal with it. The remedies are too many to cite here, but the most frequently mentioned cure is sleep. Years ago I was told that cabbage is the best thing to consume during a drinking session in order to stave off the inevitable malaise the next morning. I’m not sure: I think I felt better when I tried it, but it could have been the placebo effect. My old mentor Doris, however, had this mystery solved in one sentence: “The only cure for a hangover is death.”

Some might think that this falls into the category of beer mystery. On New Year’s Eve, a 30 year old woman in Winnipeg, Canada, was drinking a beer in a private home when she was shot in the eye. A male friend also was shot during the event, and died. The woman refused medical treatment until after she finished her beer. Police said she was “calmly sitting in a chair.”  Now here is a true beer mystery. How long it had been going on isn’t known, but it has been solved, and the scientists who solved it were awarded the IgNobel prize in biology in 2011, during a ceremony in September at Harvard University.

Twenty years ago, researchers David Rentz and Darryl Gwynne discovered that “a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.” The men were working on a completely different research project in Western Australia when by chance they observed large male beetles trying to mate with beer bottles that had been discarded along the roadside. There they were, these bugs, working away at the bottom end of the bottles. The scientists were amused, but also fascinated, and decided to study the event.

Gwynne studies sex differences theory, he said in an interview with Lifeslittlemysteries.com, “and one of the clear glaring patterns about animals is that there are a number of examples of males making mating errors. Females never – I’ve never heard an example of a female making an error. So here’s a male making a clear mating error and the theory behind it is that sperm’s cheap. Males can afford to, once in a while, you know, basically make a mistake. Females no, because reproduction is much more expensive for females.”

The researchers studied the beer bottles and found that (a) the brown color of the bottle simulates the color of a female beetle, and (2) the bottles had “a series of tiny tubercles (small rounded projections), probably to prevent slippage of the beer from the hand. Those reflected light in a similar way to the wing covers of the female, which were not only brown and shiny like the bottle, but they were reflecting light because they have these dimples in them, very much like the bottles. So we surmised that that was what was going on.” Apparently, they added, the male beetles had evolved to prefer the largest brown females that they could find, hence another reason for the attraction to the, um, bottom end of the bottle. Mystery solved.

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