Thursday, November 1, 2012

Beer Snobbery and Brewer's Yeast

Fermentation: Kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, wine, beer, cider. They're all related by an ancient process of calculated, somewhat controlled, and curiously attractive rot.

And yet, there are beer snobs.

You know how it is. Keep the outsiders out. Tilt your nose up.

Make sure to cast aspersions on the proletariat. Form a list of improprieties like drinking from the wrong glass, or failing to correctly interpret the messages in your bottle.

Ridiculously snobbish exhibit A:

Beer snobbery is among our First World Problems, for certain, but snobbery as a whole is a pretty disgusting side effect of classist elitism; a ricochet, if not the bullet of rationalized and culturally expected dominion over others. In its more innocuous incarnations, however, it merely makes being friends kind of a chore.

I'm guilty of a low-grade snobbery in certain contexts. For example, if you refuse to eat an entire species of food because it "tastes bad," I probably think you avoided natural selection and are likely only alive by the grace of boxed mac-n-cheese. But I'll also gladly share a bowl of rehydrated cheese powder and elbow macaroni with you, and enjoy it. 

Also, when someone says they don't like brussel sprouts, I want to say, "But have you had them roasted? In olive and sea salt? And sprinkled with bacon?" I'm not trying to put you down, or elevate your sensibility. Good food just makes people happy. And I like happy people. This is why I also like beer. 

Beers you don't like are probably a bit like the brussel sprouts of your babyhood. One IPA does not taste routinely like another, particularly when it comes to home brewed and micro-brewed varieties (somewhat snobbily categorized by many as "craft" beer).   

Ridiculously snobbish exhibit B:

A friend recently warned me not to learn too much about beer because then I'd figure out he's "messing up" the styles of beer he's made. I find this comment rather curious because as a person who knows next to nothing about what beer is "supposed" to taste like, I could care less. Still, I now have this book on loan.

Ridiculously creepy exhibit C

You know, because, I was having trouble.

But it's not really about being able to taste beer so much as being able to articulate what you are tasting that seems to make the difference between the average drinker and what we might term a connoisseur. While I can appreciate the distinctions between styles, I'm less concerned with what my beer is supposed to taste like than whether or not I like it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting the best beer experience possible, but I'm wary of recommendations that smack of elitism in almost any arena. Like grammar nazis, and phd's.

Still, I like learning, and the insider language of most specialized endeavors really gets my motor running.


In keeping with my recent foray into the specialized language of beer, I'd like to tell you a story. Sometimes I open the fridge and there are things moving around. Vials of brewers yeast swirling away in preparation for another home brew.

Carefully selected to perform desirably, not unlike the seeds of heirloom tomatoes and other cultivated varieties of plants, brewers yeast comes in a variety of forms and can be purchased for the home brewer in fat little test tubes which nestle in easily between your butter and your leftover lasagna. 

When finished eating sugars, or forced to go dormant through a process called cold crashing, the yeast will floc together, either dropping out and settling at the bottom or rising to the top.

Here's a video in dire need of some background ambient grooves:

From the White Labs website:
"Flocculation is a desirable and important characteristic that is unique to brewers yeast. When brewers yeast nears the end of fermentation, single cells aggregate into clumps of thousands of cells, and drop to the bottom of the fermentor, leaving clear beer behind. If yeast flocculate too early, the beer will be underattenuated and sweet. If yeast do not flocculate, the beer will be cloudy and have a yeasty taste.
Most strains of yeast, which brewers call "wild" yeast, do not flocculate well, and remain in suspension for extended periods of time. The ability to flocculate is a product of natural selection. Brewers have continually collected yeast either from the bottom or top of a fermentor and in doing so, selected for increasingly flocculent strains." 
Talk about conspiracies and cultivation.

More on flocculent cells from Wyest Laboratories:
"Flocculent cells are cells that appear to be covered in hairs or spines under a scanning electron microscope. These cells also have a negative surface charge that causes repulsion between two cells. However, when these cells collide they overcome the repulsion and stick together." [emphasis mine]
In other words, even though scientifically they should be repulsed by one another, they set aside their differences and gather together in a cuddly mass for survival. Kind of like tiny post-apocolyptic bears or bristled, friendly, satiated drunks who go home together and fall asleep half dressed while the world is ending.

In some ways, beer is the perfect byproduct of this happy little arrangement, as it quite obviously has the potential to bring people together in similarly pleasant ways. 

As for the beer snobs, I think I will leave them to their subtle distinctions for now. I'm sure we'd get along just fine after a few drinks, but I spent enough time in creative writing classrooms to know that the art of "b s" is a practiced one, and I have no interest in waving around my glass in superiority when we're all just beer drinkers in the end. 

Until next time, my friends, put your nose to the ground. Waggle it deep in the aromatic folds and let your lizard brain drink in every fermented drop. 


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