Proof: The Science of Booze by Roger Adams.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014. Pp. 220. Price R244.00. E15.00. £13.60
Being a science student, of course all I read is science (I’ve never been one for reading fiction and novels). Combine someone though, who is fully integrated in a 08h00 till 17h00 editor’s profession, with an intense interest in science, and what results is nothing short of sensational science. The ability
to make science accessible to the public is what every scientist aims for, but rarely achieves. Let’s be honest, researchers are institutionalised far too long, and making our research relevant (and fun) in conversation is often is often very hard to do or explain in the normal vocabulary we used to know. Roger Adams jumps this impasse with what would seem a child’s skip, and suddenly the book is finished and one’s left thinking “wow, that couldn’t possibly offend either a scientist or an 08h00-17h00 soul” …unless you’re resentful of all the famous people and places he’s visited, and fine whiskies he’s drunk while ‘researching’. Adams tracks the process of alcohol production by following the science over eight chapters- starting with the molecular intricacies of fermentation and distillation, to the nutritional reward alcohol is perceived as, and ends with the revenge alcohol has when we believe it’s an honest nutritional reward.
Humans have been dabbling with alcohol production for the last 11,900 years (give or take maybe a couple centuries), but earliest beer researchers of 1800’s essentially concluded that yeast is a “magical tiny creature that pees CO2 and poops out beer”. We knew how to get alcohol, but not why. An entire industry burgeoned, but it was based on a mystery, so no one knew what to do when something went wildly wrong. Pre-pasteurisation Louis Pasteur, before his more noble accolades, was interested in fermentation. It would seem he was much like any other postgraduate of today; our generation tends not to progress beyond the local pub though… However, even he could only recommend sterilisation and starting from scratch when lactic acid was produced instead of alcohol. It was a start though. Since then, yeasts have trained us to give them exactly the right amount of food at precisely the right temperature and at correct oxygen levels and they love it! If we don’t oblige, we don’t get the tasty treat, and ask “what the floc is going on?” One comes across excellent vocabulary which leaves one feeling quite the fundi of wine and beer. The NCYC (National Collection of Yeast Cultures) now have close on 4 000 yeast strains which are viciously protected. There is a relationship between a distiller and his yeasts that is almost akin to a devoted pet and owner. So much so that health regulations became quite a contentious issue for early distillers who believed that a specific combination of ‘general microbes’ festering in the distillery or falling from the roof gave the liquor its distinctive taste. ‘Dunder pits’ used in rum manufacturing epitomise this. As clinically as can be said, it is a conglomeration of decomposing by-products after distilling rum which gets used to feed the next batch of yeast (a little cannibalism never hurt I suppose??). For the whisky process this is called ‘sour mash’, and purportedly gives the liquor its authentic flavour. Dunder, if not reused, becomes fertiliser. Seems logical.
Fermentation is how yeast domesticated us. Distillation is how we reclaim face and power. Humans found a way to concentrate lots of something desirable (and surely effective enough), into something less in volume but exceedingly more potent. Aging of liquor in barrels, although this arose merely as a means of transportation (how is it that the best discoveries are always accidental?), took this a step further. Real estate was bought to store barrels to sell in 5, 10, 15 years’ time. Aged liquor was simply more palatable to those select classes who could afford it. Science supports this. Liquor aging was perfected by the 1840’s. The wood staves, comprised of lignin and cellulose, are fashioned into barrels, which hold the liquor. The lignin gradually decomposes into phenols by Maillard reactions, and the cellulose and hemicellulose into sugars (glucose, hexose and pentose). Because the liquor is oxidised gradually through pores in the barrel, liquor producers must contend with a 2% volume loss per annum through evaporation. The earlier more poetic distillers called this the “Angels share” which was offered up to heaven for the miracle of alcohol creation. It was still rather magical in those days. It’s all very much more complicated now. Does one use American or the traditional French Oak? Does one roast the barrel or secondary age it? Does one use smaller barrels where surface area to volume ratio is maximised, or age it longer in a larger barrel? For us plebs, we need the ‘Wine-Wheel’ which includes 4 primary taste categories and over 100 flavours each which will have different nuances depending on where and how it was grown. It really is no wonder wine drinkers are perceived as the most pedantic and worst loved of ‘alcoholics’. Adams gives us a little bit of hope though- according to scientific research, it is merely vocabulary which distinguishes us from the ‘upper-crust’ wine lovers.
Adams ending chapters investigates on the effect of alcohol on the body and brain, and the resulting hangover. I believe this must have been his favourite research. From visiting B.A.R. Labs (Behavioural Alcohol Research) to conducting his own research, the reader learns more than simply “Drink too much and you’ll get a headache, maybe worse”. Nothing vastly more complicated or too scientific though, because we still don’t know how the elusive alcohol molecule exerts its effect. Neuroscientists describe it as an ephemeral substance which passes unseen though cells and blood streams. What we do know is that alcohol is metabolised into acetaldehydes, and travels from the frontal cortex (personality/cognitive behaviour), to the hippocampus (memory), and through to the reptilian part of the brain- the cerebellum which deals with general coordination. Whether you’ve observed these in other people, or are on a familiar basis with them yourself, we all know the signs of alcohol consumption. Is there a way to predict how alcohol will personify itself? Will the imbibed individual be angry or placid, violent or celebratory, happy or depressed, introspective or reckless? There is no answer and no means of predicting statistically. Individuals behave differently under different scenarios, and expectation seems to be a major contributor. If you expect to get drunk, you’ll get drunk, even if Roger Adams served you a virgin Martini in his dull lit, quaint homemade B.A.R..
Little is known about how alcohol effects the body and brain, less is known about the effects of drinking too much. The AHRG (Alcohol and Hangover Research Group) found that 23% of people are more or less immune to hangovers because of a SNP (Single Polynucleotide Polymorphism) on the ADH genes on chr.4. The author terms these people “jerks”. Unfortunately, these lucky individuals tend to be more prone to alcoholism.
In any case, you’re guaranteed a rough morning if you reach a blood alcohol content of 0.1. The etymology for hangover stems from Norwegian and Greek which translates roughly to “pain and uneasiness following debauchery”. Rather apt.
Also, no one wants to fund anti-hangover research lest the success there of incites ‘bad behaviour’. There are 4 compounds though which have science backing them up, many of which arose from ancient herbal remedies. We applaud all those who willingly participated in discovering these. However, any good author will always take a personal interest in the subject matter. So in the name of science, Adams sets up his own B.A.R. Lab and gets right to testing these traditional remedies out with a few of his colleagues (n=4). His methodology is dubious and the equipment more so, he regrettably admits the following afternoon… but based on his illegible notes and slight amnesia, he had a good time.
No one can speak more authoritatively on the subject that he who has subjected himself to the rigours of educating oneself. A popular read, this book is infused with knowledge, and aged well with humour. Roger Adams presents his findings and personal encounters with some of the ‘top dogs’ in the field as palatably as anyone could wish for.