“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

I have a shocking confession to make.

I think I may be a nerd.

No, no, don’t try to deny it. I think it pretty much has to be true for someone who reads a 10-page scientific paper (hover or click here to see the reference) in order to learn that bacteria-snot is slimy. Yes, I am a nerd. And for that I am deeply, deeply….

Oh, who am I kidding? I like being a nerd.

Stainless Steel fermenters at a breweryFor one thing, being a nerd allows me to fully enjoy one of the perks that my job gives me – namely access to a lot of scientific papers that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to obtain access to from the greedy [insert your favority profanity here] who insist on charging $30 for permission to look at a decades-old articles for a day. I should add that this perk includes Inter-Library Loan for articles that I can’t get online, and the service on campus is great so far. Same day delivery of a classic article from 1930 in what I’m guessing most people would probably consider an obscure journal.

It doesn’t have quite the same thing in it that I expected from the source that pointed me to it, but I think it can still be considered “classic”. I need to re-read it more carefully to make a final decision on this, but I think I have my next “The Giant’s Shoulders” article in time for this month’s upcoming issue. And, yes, the picture attached to this post is a hint (and, no, it’s not directly related to the bacteria-snot article mentioned above in any way…)

“Untersuchungen über Bacterien”

Cultures of Blastomyces dermitiditis, showing how it grows like a mold at one temperature and like a yeast at another.Once again I’m down to the last minute, trying to juggle too many things and almost missing this month’s “Giant’s Shoulders” blog carnival. Almost.

Today we go once again all the way back to the Victorian era, to see that if you thought bacterial taxonomy was difficult now, imagine what it was like over 130 years ago:
Cohn F:”Untersuchungen über Bacterien”; Beiträge zur Biologie der Pflanzen; 1875, vol 1; pp 127-222
(Or “Researches regarding Bacteria”, in “Contributions towards the Biology of Plants”)

This paper is an overview of the problem of categorizing bacteria among the types of living things, and makes some early suggestions. I don’t think it’ll spoil too much of the punchline to point out that not only is the journal about the biology of plants, but the paper also starts out with Cohn describing how he came to work at the “plant physiological institute”. Cohn’s assertion that bacteria are definitely a form of plant actually stuck for at least another three-quarters of a century or so – I have a copy of a 1945 book on bacteriology that actually has a short discussion on why bacteria are categorized as plants rather than animals (or “animalcules”, even). That’s only part of what’s interesting about this paper, though.

Cohn discusses a number of problems with the nature of bacteria in his time. For one thing, he says there had been little real effort to even come up with a coherent scheme for classifying bacteria at that point. He does mention one previous attempt to come up with a system, but on the whole it seems everyone is just coming up with terminology on the fly – even taking Pasteur himself to task for throwing around a variety of terms related to microbes without distinguishing what the terms actually refer to. The reason for this, really, is just that figuring out pretty much anything in detail about bacteria was a seriously difficult problem at the time. Cohn explains why; how it is really impossible to make out more than general shape and size from microscopic examination, and how the lack of any detectable sexual reproduction makes it impossible to do positively identify members of the same species. In fact, even very obvious differences in appearance might not be definitive. It was suspected (and later demonstrated) that some of what appeared to be completely different fungi were actually just different life-stages of the same fungus. (Hopefully you can see the picture at upper right, with the bacteria/yeast-like growth on one tube and the obvious and very different fuzzy mold-type growth on the other. Both are actually the fungus Blastomyces dermitiditis.) Just as some of Cohn’s contemporaries considered that perhaps all molds and yeasts were really just different stages of life of the same organism, perhaps the same might also be true of bacteria?

Cohn does, after all, promote the notion of bacteria as a type of fungus. You may even remember an old word for bacteria: Schizomycetes, that is “fission-fungi” (that is, fungi that reproduce by splitting in half rather than producing spores). This makes sense if you consider that bacteria are more like plants and algae than animals, and fungi were considered to be plants that lacked chlorophyll. Although lamenting that it was not feasible to really separate out individual bacteria to determine whether they ever changed form – this was still three years before Joseph Lister actually did so – Cohn unwaveringly felt that bacteria were in fact made up of several different genera and species, and set out an early attempt at classification.

Once again, Our Friend the American Society for Microbiology hosts a translation of this paper, complete with a couple of paragraphs of more modern editorial commentary at the end. It’s well worth a look.

A photographic portrait of Ferdinand Julius CohnUnfortunately, I don’t think Ferdinand Cohn’s hairstyle is nearly as spiffy as Eduard Buchner’s cool “Colonel Sanders Guest Stars on Miami Vice” look. I think he looks kind of like a slightly-better-fed Sigmund Freud with a bad comb-over. But that’s just me.

Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen

In my last submission to “The Giants’ Shoulders” blog carnival, we saw how the famous surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister deftly demonstrated definitively that fermentation processes were caused by live microbes rather than some sort of mysterious soluble substance that just happened to be associated with microbes. In today’s episode, we will see how Eduard Buchner definitely demonstrated that fermentation was caused by a soluble substance that was associated with microbes, and no microbes are actually needed.

Better still…they’re both right. “Wait…what?” Read on, O Seeker of Microbiological Knowledge, and be enlightened by this month’s entry: Continue reading Über alkoholische Gärung ohne Hefezellen

Possible audio show, and “ask me anything!”…

You may be wondering where I’ve been. (If not, in order to spare my fragile little ego, please pretend that you were. Thank you.) Well, mostly I’ve been in my car driving to and from my spiffy new job.

This hasn’t left me with much time to blog lately, which annoys me a bit. On the other hand, the commute is long enough that I run out of netcasts to listen to during the week, leaving me with driving time back and forth during which I could conceivably be doing something productive.

Continue reading Possible audio show, and “ask me anything!”…