Sophic Suds

A beer-colored, sepia-tone-like picture of glass of beer overlooking a valley
(Image: “When Beer Ruled the Earth” – you should really click through and read the caption that goes with it…)

A fundamental aspect of my personal philosophy is this: If you cannot play with something, you have not mastered it, and if you do not play with it, you will not master it.

I can sit here and read for hours, but it’s time I actually put my hands on some brewing again. I have a pound each of wheat and amber dried malt extract, an ounce of a low-bitterness (~2.9% alpha-acids) pellet hops, a packet of medium-attenuation dried beer yeast, two 39 millihogshead plastic containers that I can use as fermenters, an early-20th-century hand-cranked blower/bellows, a hot glue gun, a gallon of pineapple juice, some air-line tubing, a cabinet full of spices (including, of course, ginger), at least one small room air-filter, several pounds of honey, perhaps half a cup of granular erythritol, glycerol, a whole mess of glass bottles and bottlecaps, a variety of high-caffeine black tea bags, miscellaneous kitchen implements, a couple of copper-coated scouring pads, a selection of two-liter PETE bottles, iodophor concentrate, a hydrometer, a somewhat overstressed and twisted mind, a wife, four cats, and a dog. What shall I make?

I’m thinking I should aim for a mildly sweet brew with a ginger bite, perhaps adding a bit of tea or pepper if the sweetness needs balancing – but of course part of the goal of the exercise here will be to try to adapt to whatever I’m getting along the way…


What shall I do?!?

Colored nigiri rice colored and shaped like 'Marshmallow Peeps'Since natural forces have not (yet) secured a replacement job for my Minister of Domestic Affairs, I’m forced to appeal to the supernatural and assume that the Spirits are angry with me for not yet having performed the appropriate Devouring Of The Soft Pink Bunnies ritual this year…so I’m devouring a package of pink “Peeps” bunnies. No doubt good fortune will finally swiftly follow…

Meanwhile, I’m poking around in patents and scientific papers, pondering a few different possible topics for the next post:

  • More on the “Nathan System” of brewing, with reference to patents and the intended purpose thereof (and pondering how to construct a homebrew-scale “Hillbilly Biotech™” version thereof)
  • Fermented foods and beverages review and request for ones I haven’t heard of yet
  • Bad poetry
  • The previously mentioned paper on getting yeast cells to eat themselves to death
  • A post composed mainly of photographs of myself with no clothes
  • The current collection of quasi-random scientific publications I’m wading through for fun
  • Some computer-related nerdity
  • Anything else

Please place your suggestions in the comments, I beg of you. Even if they are just long strings of profane threats of violence should I elect to post on [insert forbidden topic here].

“Improvements in the Fermentation and Maturation of Beers”

Judging by my webserver’s logs, almost nobody actually bothers to click through the blog-carnival host’s site to read my Giant’s Shoulders” posts. This could be due to a secret conspiracy involving famous bloggers and several shadowy government agencies. I suppose, though, that there’s a chance that simply nobody but me is that interested in non-medical microbiology. Well…today’s post is an attempt to disprove that concept, for what aspect of non-medical microbiology could be more universally appealing than beer?

Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to assemble this posting, I see the February host has decided to put the carnival up a day early, undercutting my experiment. See, I told you it was a conspiracy! I suspect the Secret Cabal of Popular Bloggers was getting pressure from the Trilateral Comission, the NSA, and Pepsico® to silence me, so they had to do it. At least being forced to miss one, I am now free from the “I’ve been posting to these since the beginning, I can’t miss one now!” treadmill.

That means, loyal readers, that you get to see this post a month before everyone else! Hooray! Stick it to The Man™! Comically paranoid rantings aside, it also means I can split this up into more than one post, which may be more readable considering how much ground the article in question actually covers. Today’s Classic Scientific Paper is:

Nathan, L:”Improvements in the fermentation and maturation of beers.”; 1930; J. Inst. Brewing; 36; pp538-550

I ran across this reference recently while working my way through an industrial microbiology text[1] that I checked out of the campus library. According to the author of this text, “The use of cylindro-conical vessels in the brewing of lager was first proposed by Nathan (1930)[…]”, referring to the now-ubiquitous style of metal fermenter seen in small brewpubs and “MegaBladderwashCo” large-scale industrial breweries alike. Based on this I had expected the reference to be a digression on the design, construction, and testing of the fermenter. When inter-library loan managed to get me a copy of the paper, I found something much more involved.

The paper is a presentation made by Dr. Leopold Nathan in 1930 to the Scottish section of the Institute of Brewing. The topic was not simply a fermenter design but the entire “Nathan System” of brewing which appears to be the basis of modern large-scale brewing, especially for Lager-type beers. At this point, Dr. Nathan had apparently already been developing this system for about thirty years (apparently starting with a German patent in 1908, which I’ve yet to find a copy of), so as you might guess it was not just a single invention but a whole collection of them. Compared to the more rustic techniques frequently in use at the time, the “Nathan System” of brewing promised to provide faster production, more consistent results, and a better final product. It does this mainly by improving the removal of “trub” (the cloudy bits of protein and such that settle out of the malt-water – the “wort” – after you boil it), preventing infection of the beer with undesirable organisms during the cooling, hops-infusion, and aeration, and by eliminating the need to “age” the brew to make it palatable. The most important improvement in the “Nathan Process” seems to be how he treats the wort between boiling and “pitching”.

For anyone unfamiliar with the brewing process, here’s a Grossly Oversimplified review of the steps:

  • Boil some malt-sugar dissolved in water to sterilize it and to help coagulate the “trub” proteins so they’ll settle out of the liquid.
  • Cool the malt solution and aerate it so that the yeast will grow in it.
  • “Pitch” your yeast into the now-cooled-and-aerated malt-water, in a container that will keep air out while letting out the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast will give of during the fermentation
  • Wait until the yeast get done fermenting, then put the resulting liquid into bottles/kegs/casks/whatever.

Diagram showing the containment vessel, cooling system, and sterile-air generator for the 'Nathan method' of brewing
I’ve added a couple of labels to that image from the paper, which I’m guessing was itself copied from a contemporary patent of Dr. Nathan’s. There are two purposes to this part of the Nathan Process – To cool and aerate the wort quickly without exposing it to risk of contamination, and to move trub and volatile sulfur compounds that would otherwise make the brew taste and smell funny. The hot boiled wort is pumped directly into an insulated vat (labelled “A” in the diagram) from the boiling kettle. At this stage the wort is hot enough to prevent anything from landing in it and growing. Then, the hot wort is pumped from the top of this vat into a clean-room containing a cooling device that the wort is poured on, cooling and aerating it as it flows through. Infection is prevented here by the fact that the room has a continuous stream of “sterilized” (or at least well-filtered) air, which is exhausted through the vent in the ceiling. The cooled, aerated wort is then pumped back out of the room and into the bottom of the insulated container below the still-hot wort.

Because of the large open cooling room with its constant stream of clean air, the cooling and aeration step also allows the volatile sulfurous compounds of “jungbukett” (The “Bouquet of Youth”; the unpleasant smells and tastes of immature beer, described in this paper as ‘onion-like’) to evaporate off and be carried away. Since waiting for these compounds to break down was apparently a primary reason for having to “age” lager before selling it, this not only improves the quality but eliminates the need to store the beer for months after fermentation.

The now-chilled wort then rests back in vat “A” and the trub settles out onto horizontal plates inside the vat, where it stays behind when the clarified wort is pumped out to the fermenters.

I did some poking around, and this appears to be what is described in US Patent# 1,581,194 (application filed in August of 1921), in case you are bored and want to look that up. If not, or if you don’t want to deal with the frustrating hassle of trying to view TIFF files in your browser, I intend to provide a followup post with some more details of the process and some interesting bits I found in it, and I’ll include a pdf of the patents, assuming anyone wants them.

Oh, one last thing – I’ve had no luck getting any biographical information about Dr. Leopold Nathan. Unfortunately when you search for “Leopold Nathan”, the results are clogged with references to a murdering smartass named “Nathan Leopold” instead. Doesn’t Google™ realize that brewmeisters are far more important than obscure murderers? No pictures of him, either, so I can’t even say whether his hairstyle is cooler than Eduard Buchner’s or not.

[1] Stanbury PF, Whitaker A, Hall SJ:”Principles of Fermentation Technology (2nd edition)”; 1995; Elsevier Science, Ltd; Tarrytown NY

This Week = No Fun, but here’s an update anyway…

Busy week with unpleasant surprises, but I ain’t dead yet. You’re probably wondering what a hot dog that’s apparently eagerly anticipating eating itself has to do with that. The answer is: nothing, but it does relate to something I have been intending to post about for a long time, but haven’t since I didn’t have access to the paper…

So, in lieu of blasting out Twitter®-style updates on my Laconica feed that nobody reads anyway (a few people no doubt see the echo of them on Twitter® itself, but I don’t know if anyone cares…), here are a couple of what-I’m-doing-now updates before I go to bed:

  • I just shot off an email to the webmaster (the only contact I could find who might have the relevant information) of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, trying to get access to a classic paper published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling for the upcoming “On the Shoulders of Giants” carnival.
  • There’s no way I can afford the ~$300US that it would cost to join the group, nor even at the moment to pay the typical $30 or so that greedy paywall-imprisoned publishers charge for individual articles. However, they appear to be opening up their archives to the public, for which I think they deserve substantial praise. Still, they haven’t worked their way back to the first few decades of the 20th century yet, so I had to email and ask if there was a way to get the article in question. If not, I’ll see if there’s any way to get it through inter-library loan in time.

  • “Small Things Considered” asks “What Microbiological Discovery in 2008 Did You Find Especially Interesting?” Which brings us to the “self-eating” thing.
  • The paper on caffeine’s induction of macroautophagy (“self-eating”) in yeast (and what happens when benzoic acid is also present) finally escaped from the paywall prison in January, and I now have a copy. I at least thought it was full of interesting implications (along with some useful knowledge), so I’ll hopefully be posting about it soon.

  • I’m also a computer nerd
  • Particularly when it comes to things like Linux. I’ve been thinking of trying to do some recordings on a couple of practical subjects that interest me for “Hacker Public Radio”

  • And of course, I still need to do some Xanthomonas snot Xanthan Gum experiments.

I am an attention-whorewilling to listen to my readers’ interests, so if anyone has suggestions or comments feel free to post them…

The rightful place of science, and “The definition of an intoxicating beverage”

Advocates for the repeal of prohibition carrying 'We Want Beer' signs

Just a brief point first: President Obama in his inaugural address promised to “restore science to its rightful place.” In traditional fashion, this prompted all manner of verbosity on blogs around the web concerning just what science’s rightful place actually is. Let me just take a moment to settle this question:

Science’s rightful place is kneeling at my feet in supplication and doing my bidding! AH, HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!

But that’s not what I came here to post about. Instead, I wanted to mention a paper I finally got my hands on. You may recall that some time back there were a few stories that popped up about what was said to be a “you can’t get drunk on beer” paper published back in the 1950’s. As usual, the people doing the reporting couldn’t be bothered to actually cite the paper in question, but I figured out which one it was. The paper is this one:
Greenberg LA:”The Definition of an Intoxicating Beverage”; Q J Stud Alcohol. 1955 Jun;16(2):316-25.

I have that paper. And I am quite disappointed in it in much the same way I was with Linus Pauling’s paper proposing a triple-helix structure for DNA. I did, though, learn some interesting things from Greenberg’s paper.

It turns out that the paper actually concerns the legal definition of “intoxication” and whether or not, based on this definition, beer should be classified as an “intoxicating beverage”. Greenberg actually raises some good points…but first, some amusement:

“The average alcohol content of American beers is 3.7 per cent[…]The strongest ale is 4.2 per cent” (page 320, paragraph 4)

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as funny as it sounds, because the part I clipped out of that quote is where he says “by weight”. It’s still kinda funny though, since that would mean, in mass-market-bladderwash terms, that “The Strongest Ale” is Heineken.

This Alcohol-by-Weight-vs-Volume issue may actually be part of why American beers have a reputation for having watery, feeble beers. It evidently used to be that places like Canada were using alcohol-by-volume, while the US was using alcohol-by-weight on their labels. An otherwise-identical beer bottled in Canada would have a higher “percent alcohol” on the label than the US-bottled version, making it seem as though the American version was weaker. So, evidently it’s not really true…things like “Coors Lite” notwithstanding. (See this recent page at for more details.)

But back to the point of the paper…evidently as Greenberg was writing this paper half a century ago, there wasn’t a clear, quantitative scientific or legal definition for “intoxication”. He points out that you can’t just define it in terms of alcohol merely having noticeable effects on the drinker, since the magnitude of the unpleasant effects at low to moderate drinking levels aren’t really much different than that for (for undesirable effects) lack of sleep, distraction [remember all those studies saying talking on the cell-phone while driving is as bad as being drunk?], hunger and so forth. For that matter, I think we can all see the problem of trying to arrest anyone who is being relaxed and amiable for “public intoxication”.

Greenberg solves this problem by looking at the average blood-alcohol concentration of people arrested for “intoxication” (0.21% back in the 1950’s, evidently), and a couple of previous studies from the 1920’s and 1930’s, and he finally settles on 0.15% Blood Alcohol Concentration as a level he’ll use as the line for “definitely intoxicated”. He then proceeds to go through the common classes of alcohol-containing beverages to determine how easy it is for someone to consume enough to reach this BAC.

In summary – For hard liquor, and average person would have to consume 8 ounces plus one ounce per hour of drinking (for example, 9 ounces consumed over the course of one hour). That’s not a difficult quantity to fit into a typical stomach, so hard liquor is obviously an “intoxicating beverage”. Fortified wines (like Port, Madiera…or Thunderbird): about 18 ounces plus 2 ounces per hour – say, a pint and a half in about 4 hours. Still pretty easy to do. An ordinary wine (like, say, a Gewürtztraminer): 36 ounces plus 4 ounces/hour – or a 7-11 “Super Big Gulp®”-sized portion in two or three hours. Getting to be a fairly substantial amount of liquid, but still plausible.

And then there’s beer. Greenberg comes up with a figure of 80 ounces + 10 ounces/hour. That’s roughly three quarts within one hour, which is quite a bit more than the approximately 2 quarts that a human stomach can hold. He goes on to describe several controlled experiments on beer consumption and the resulting blood-alcohol concentration. By pushing one group to consume a gallon and a half of beer over a period of 8 hours, they were able to get up to an average of just under “intoxicated” (by Greenberg’s definition) at 0.13%. The rate of beer ingestion required to pass the “intoxication” threshhold was more than most test subjects could even manage. Therefore (Greenberg concludes) beer should probably not actually be classified as an “intoxicating beverage”

Now for the party-poopery: Greenberg explicitly points out that this is certainly not the same as saying that beer cannot impair a drinker’s performance or judgement, so just because you haven’t consumed anything stronger than beer it doesn’t mean you should be allowed behind the wheel of a steamroller. Nor does it mean that it’d be okay for an alcoholic to drink beer (since an alcoholic is very unlikely to stop with just beer). Furthermore, these days “intoxicated” is legally about half of the level that Greenberg is using – 0.08% in most places in the US as far as I can tell. By Greenberg’s measure, you can easily get that amount of alcohol out of a pitcher of beer consumed over an hour.

So, Greenberg isn’t crazy, and beer can still make you drunk, just as we all would expect. How disappointing. Still, it’s an interesting paper and I’m glad I dug it up.

On a related note, if I can get my hands on an old paper from the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, I may have found my selection for February’s Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival. Stay tuned, more to come…

Phone-in Geolocation: almost working…

It’s a hasty and rather brittle thing, but I seem to have the asterisk side of the equation functioning at a minimal level, including recording audio to go with the latitude and longitude that I dial in when I call. Aside from the beautification and cleanup to make it more intuitive, all I need to do is test the “convert the recording to mp3” call and whip up a quick frontend to display the data. Then all of you loyal fans (and/or secret conspirators) can follow along on my long but hasty journey complete with audio. Aren’t you lucky? (Don’t answer that…) If my schedule works out well enough, I may even be able to do a travelogue update from New Belgium Brewing Company along the way.

The basic process is that I whip out my trusty cellphone, call home, and dial the appropriate extension. I then key in my latitude and longitude, and then record up to a five minute bit of audio to go with it. The script then sticks the latitude, longitude, and timestamp (local to the server) at the end of a comma-separated text file and will then invoke a background process of LAME to convert the file to mp3 for online listening. I’m probably only going to have time for a really simple web interface for the moment since I’ve got to hit the road by lunchtime tomorrow after some work in the morning, but once I’m back from this trip I’ll hopefully have a chance to spiff it up.

UPDATE 20081223:If you’re bored, and you watch you MIGHT see an update or to show up during the day, assuming everything works. Unfortunately I won’t actually know if it worked until tonight when I stop for the evening and get online to check it out…

ANOTHER UPDATE 20081223 (late): Now that I’ve stopped for the evening, I’ve fixed the stupid last-minute typo that was keeping the page from working. The audio isn’t automatically being converted to mp3, so until I get time to figure that out the audio parts of the updates won’t show up until I have time to log in and start the conversion by hand. Hopefully be able to fix that (and spiff up the display page) in a day or two.

Any questions, comments, or suggestions (or requests)?

Yeast needs to breathe

Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation deviceAs readers may have guessed from previous posts, my brewing interests are minimally conventional. Fortunately, the Basic Brewing Radio podcast seems to regularly expand well beyond the usual “fermented malt flavored with a tisane of hops” thing (I need to try to make my own “Ginger Beer Plant” from scratch one of these days…). A couple of weeks ago, they did an episode covering an experiment on aeration methods which was very interesting. It does my ego good to know that I correctly guessed how the results would turn out. You can get a copy of the nice write-up of the experiment itself here, but here’s the simple version:

Continue reading Yeast needs to breathe

(Tap Tap Tap) Is this thing on?…

Move is underway. Here’s a quick update / test.

Cornelia and Monk(eymutt), the Laser Dogs

On the way home (to Texas, that is, with a load of furniture from House v1.0 in Idaho) we adopted a co-dog. Now Cornelia isn’t the only official dog in the house.

Yeah, I know, pretty frivolous stuff. What do you want – this is mainly a test post. You guys ARE seeing this post, right? (Please comment and let me know). I’ve finally found and jumped through the hoops necessary to migrate the website over to the new host. It’s also running on the old server in House v1.0 on the DSL line as well, but this post isn’t getting put on it. If I’ve done everything correctly, hosting for should now be handled by Eskimo North. Just a few other minor tweaks and I’ll be set to return to House v1.0 and shut down the old server so I can move it down here to Texas.

I’ve gone from about 4400ft elevation down to about 250ft, but the plastic bottles of Mountain Dew® Wine seem to have positive pressure, so it would appear there is still some live yeast left in there and the priming sugar is slowly doing its job. I’m pretty sure the benzoic acid is what’s slowing down the activity so drastically, but it hasn’t killed it off yet.

I’ve also got a couple of entries in mind already for the next The Giants’ Shoulders blog carnival, and hopefully some more crazed brewing project news to offer sometime. And, of course, the promised post on why benzoic acid works. Stay tuned.

Mountain Dew® Wine: Disappointment strikes!

<whine excuse=”obligatory”>Have I ever mentioned what a huge hassle it is to relocate from one abode to another 1600 miles away?…</whine>

I’m finally back at House v1.0 where I can check on the progress of my Mountain Dew® Wine. It appears to have managed to ferment, in spite of the severe dose of preservatives in the stuff designed to prevent that from happening. It went somewhat slowly, but it’s gone from an original gravity of around 1.054 down to about 1.011 or so, suggesting about, say, 5-6% alcohol in the final product, which has faded to a pale, cloudy yellow color. Hopefully the cloudiness is from still-living yeast, which has now demonstrated that it is reasonably benzoic-acid-and-caffeine tolerant.

I fear I must report that the result is a crushing disappointment to me. It’s not very good. Worse yet, it’s not very bad, either. I was hoping that if it wasn’t surprisingly tasty that it would at least be shockingly awful in some interesting way so I’d have something entertaining to say about it here.

Actually, the adjective that comes to mind is “inoffensive”. If you would like to whip up a quick simulation of what I’ve got here, you might be able to do it like this: Take some citrus-flavored sparkling mineral water. Dilute it about half with (uncarbonated) distilled water. Then mix about 7 volumes of that with one volume of vodka. What I’ve got here is slightly sparkling, with a barely noticeable citrus flavor and little or no remaining sweetness. It’s a little surprising to me just how much of the flavor of Mountain Dew® apparently comes from its sweetness. Perhaps next time I try this (if there ever IS a “next time”…) I’ll have to mix regular and “diet” Mountain Dew® – with some bonus sugar to make up the difference, of course.

I’m not completely done here. I’m still going to dispense it into cleaned bottles with a little bit of sugar to prime it for full carbonation. Sanitized plastic soda-bottles of course – none of that snobby glass stuff for this here experimental drinkin’ substance! It may be high-class for “pruno”, but it’s sure as heck not Champagne™. (Besides, I want to evaluate reusing plastic bottles anyway – it’d be a lot easier to tell when there’s too much pressure and to let some of the pressure off if there is.) Plus, I need to take some of the still-live yeast and keep it alive. No point in developing a benzoic-acid-tolerant yeast strain and not keeping it!

On a related note, an article was mentioned on, saying that back in 1955, a scientist “proved” that it is not normally possible to get drunk on beer. Of course, he seems to have been referring to dilute mass-market bladderwash and his reasoning was that a typical human stomach cannot contain enough 3.7%-alcohol beer for a typical human to achieve a dangerous blood-alcohol level.

As usual, the articles (see here and here) go for the “a scientist says this” part but never bother to say WHERE the scientist says it – usually a real scientific publication.

A quick search of pubmed turns up a likely candidate:

Greenberg LA: “The definition of an intoxicating beverage.” Q J Stud Alcohol. 1955 Jun;16(2):316-25 (link goes to the pubmed entry, which has little more information that this).

I do believe it is a moral imperative that I get a copy of this article somewhere so that I may reference it later. Is there anyone out there reading this who might be able to get a copy of this paper somewhere for me? Please?…

“A small modification of Koch’s plating method.”

Only two more days for the Classic Papers Challenge, so if I’m going to get any more up, I’d better get my butt in gear.

Here’s a nice easy one:

Petri, R. J.:”Eine kleine Modification des Koch’schen Plattenverfahrens.” Centralblatt für Bacteriologie und Parasitenkunde; 1887; Vol. 1, pages 279-280.

The American Society for Microbiology has a translation available online. It’s only about a page-and-a-half of relatively large type – check it out.

There’s a trick we microbiologists use for growing bacteria. You make a solid (but wet) surface that contains whatever nutrients the microbe (bacteria, archaea, yeasts, mold spores…) you’re interested in need, and then you spread a diluted mixture of the microbe on it. The idea is that since the surface is solid the microbes can’t move around too much, and at any spot where a single cell starts initially, a whole pile of that cell and it’s genetically-identical (non-sexually-produced) clone-children will form until it gets big enough to see without a microscope. This cell-pile is called a “colony”, and you can poke or rub it with a sterile object, then stick the object into a sterile nutrient source. The end result is you have a “pure” culture of microbes that are effectively genetically identical. The solid material could be a lot of things – I’ve seen references to using slices of potato – though these days agar-agar gel mixed with nutrients is the preferred substance.

Koch (that is, Robert Koch of “Koch’s Postulates” fame, not Ed Koch the former mayor of New York City) used gelatin (so, hey, here’s another thing you can do with your expired Jell-O&reg;). He apparently used to have a stack of shallow bowls, and had to use a special pouring device to carefully dump the gelatin into each stacked bowl in turn, then cover the works with a bell jar in order to keep stuff from falling into them from the air and contaminating them.

This was kind of a pain to work with, so some clever guy named Julius came up with a modification of this method in 1887, using pairs of shallow dishes, one slightly larger than the other so that it could be turned upside down to use as a lid. Then, you don’t necessarily need the bell jar, and you don’t need to stack them so they’re easier to pour.

Julius Robert Petri’s idea was so useful that we still use it today. Oh, yeah, and they named the dish-and-lid combination after him.

How’s that for a “classic” paper?

Meanwhile, my “Mountain Dew® Wine” project is turning out to be substantially more educational and fascinating than I’d hoped. There seems to be a decent amount of information available on how benzoic acid affects yeasts. I intend to turn that into a post later, but first I’ll try to find at least one more old paper to post before tomorrow is over…