17 Dec 2012

In Praise of Science


The other day, when I finished writing the phrase "...anyone with a basic knowledge in brewing science..", I had to stop for a second. Suddenly I started to wonder why I had used the word science and was reminded of what I had written elsewhere, when discussing bits of brewing history, about the adoption of a more scientific approach to beer making. I also recalled much of what I read in "Brew Like a Monk", but mostly about this excellent interview Kristen England gave to Fuggled. To Al's first question, how did you get into brewing as a career? Kristen answers, "...It’s another form of science which got me hooked…science begets science...".

Before getting to write this, I asked my followers in Facebook what they thought about it, and after a pretty interesting discussion, and let my mind mind chew on it a bit, I reached the conclusion that beer making isn't an art, is an industry and there's nothing really artistic in it.

Before spewing your wrath, take a deep breath and let me explain myself (and after that, if you still feel like it, you are free to curse and swear all you want).

A work of art doesn't need to have any purpose, functional or practical, it's only a form of creative expression. It isn't limited by laws or norms, either. A beer, on the other hand, is created and brewed with a sole real purpose, to be consumed, imbibed. Unlike art, a beer must please, otherwise it fails. its success, therefore, it's determined mostly by external factors.

It's a lot harder to determine if art is successful or not. At a modern art exhibition I was once there was a piece that consisted on half a ping-pong table, on which there was a couple of blue dreadlocks (belonging to the author, I was told), all under a plastc dome. Without knowing anything about the author and what drove him into creating that, I could hardly judge his work beyond the purely aesthetic, but art doesn't necessarily have to be pretty. The author could tell me "you philistine! Can't you see this represents my struggle to become a better snooker player", or something like that, and he would be right, I don't understand it and the failure would be more on my side than his. But if I drink a beer and I don't like it, its author can explain me all he wants, but nothing will change, the beer will have failed.

This is because, basically, any form of expression can be considered art if its author so believes. If I pulled the following words out of my ass: "Morning on the tram / Fat lady sneezes / Wind blows on stilettos / Sculpted nails in coloured claws / A fart scares them", nobody could tell me this isn't a poem, if I so believed. A crappy poem perhaps, but a poem nonetheless; and if I believe it is a great poem (and it fucking is!) there's nobody who would be able to convince me otherwise and, just for having been spawned, this poem would not have failed.

Beer, on the other hand, is something that is quite clearly defined. I can't ferment a blend of corn flakes, lettuce and mint and call it "avant garde beer", because regardless of the resulting quality, it's not going to be beer! But even if I stay within the practices and ingredients that do define beer, I will still be limited. I could add the word "conundrum" anywhere in my poem, and it'd still be a poem, but there are some ingredients and processes I can't use to make beer, not because of any reinheitsgebotist nonsense, but because chemistry won't allow it.

But there are still many people who insist that there is art in beer making because, after all, it's a creative activity. I believe this to be rather overrated, aside from the creation of new recipes, beer making is mostly about replicating those recipes, following a series of specific processes. But even if we didn't argue about it, the fact is that creativity doesn't automatically mean art.

One of the FB commentators the other day said he was "fed up with the false dychotomy between science and creativity". According to him, a good scientist also needs to be creative, and I couldn't agree more! Science needs a good deal of creative thinking when it comes to solving problems. Just like an artist, a scientist can also draw inspiration from their surroundings because they see things differently than the average folk. The legend of Newton and the apple is a good example of that.

But back to the recipe, the only thing that is 100% creative in craft of beer making. If we think about it, a recipe is nothing but a formula. You choose the right components and the right mechanisms to reach a more or less clear result (or just to experiment). Since we aren't talking about a medicine or the design for a satellite; the scientist has a broader playing field, but they will always be limited by the laws of nature.

The problem, I reckon, has to do with image. "Science" and "scientist" make us think about laboratories and boring, lab coat wearing people who have spent much of their lives studying books almost incomprehensible for most of us. But reality is not like that! During the presentation of Gypsy Porter, Gazza was discussing why he had chosen Carafa Spezial no. 1 over no. 3, or something like that, and that is also science! At more intuitive, or maybe, empirical level; anyone who knows how to cook will know what I'm talking about. You don't need to have studied to know how long and at what temperature you need to put a 2kg chicken in the oven to get a nice dinner.

Another false dichotomy is that between science and romance. Brewers often tell us about their dreams, vision and passion for beer, and other stories. But aren't there people who got into science not because they were after fame and fortune, but because they wanted to follow the steps of someone they admired, try to find the answers to some big questions or even make this a better world to live? (Oh, yeah. And Indiana Jones, he's no musician or sculptor, he's a motherfucking archaeologist!)

In short, a great beer isn't a work of art. It's the result of dedication, skill, patience, experience, knowledge, will to improve, and the respect and pride in one's labour, and of science. It's about time that those brewers who want to make us believe they are artists, start trying to convince us they are scientists, that they realise they don't work in an atelier, but a factory that makes the same product the macros make, beer.

But, and as I say above, art is defined by the artist, and if believing they are artists is what motivates those brewers to get out of bed in the morning to sterilise bottles, fix pumps and pay the bills, who am I to complain? Just bear in mind that nowadays, not much more than a bit of charisma and a pretty smile are enough for any talentless twat to be celebrated as an artist. A scientist, on the other hand, still needs to show something concrete, and few things are more concrete than a well made beer.

Na Zdraví!

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