2014; 212 pages. New Author? : Yes. Laurels : Best Science Book of 2014 – Amazon, Wired, The Guardian, NBC; 2014 Gourmand Award – Best Spirits Book in the USA. It kicked butt in the 2014 Awards, man. Genre : Non-Fiction; Science; Alcohol. Overall Rating : 9½*/10.
Ah, booze. It is truly a gift from God to Mankind. There’s proof (pun intended) of that: fruits like grapes undergo fermentation naturally to create alcohols, and there is archaeological evidence humans have been enjoying the fruits (pun intended once again)of this metamorphosis, possibly as far back as 10,000 years ago.
There is a bit of a drawback though. The alcohol content in those fermented grapes is rather low. So it was necessary for some thirsty humans (the Romans, probably) to invent a process called distillation, which enabled them to concentrate the alcohol and thereby greatly speed up catching a buzz and/or a drunken stupor.
But it’s 2 millennia after the Romans now, and surely we can use Modern Science to analyze the steps to make booze, and then quickly reproduce the process in a lab. After all, who wants to wait a couple years for Whiskey to age, or Wine to mature? It’ll be easy, right?
Wrong. Not easy at all.
What’s To Like...
Adam Rogers does a remarkable job of combining history, science, in-the-field research, and wit to educate the reader all about how we get from the field (there are lots of plants besides grapes that can be converted to alcohol) to booze. You may think there’s a big difference between whiskey, champagne, vodka, beer, and wine – and for the imbiber, there is - but the process to make each one is pretty much the same.
Proof – The Science of Booze is laid out in an admirably logical manner: each chapter takes you step-by-step through the process. The chapters (and brief synopses) are:
0.) Intro – Yay Booze!
1.) Yeast – Lose your yeast; lose your business.
2.) Sugar – Yeast + Sugar = Alcohol.
3.) Fermentation – If a grape can do it, how hard can it be?
4.) Distillation – Better (stronger, actually) solutions through Chemistry!
5.) Aging – Ewww. What is that black mold, anyway?
6.) Smell & Taste – Can you objectively quantify sensory input?
7.) Body & Brain – The chemistry of catching a buzz.
8.) Hangover – What causes them? What can you do about them?
Despite the short length of the book (212 pages, not including the “Notes”, “Index”, and “Bibliography” sections which I didn’t bother with), this was a slow read because of all the technical information imparted. Wit and humor abound, but Science comes first and foremost. Yet they are not mutually exclusive. For instance, there’s the clinical study titled “Effect of Dilute Alcohol Given by Rectal Injection During Sleep” (pg 164). No, I’m not volunteering for that one, but somebody did.
Adam Rogers also blends in a bunch of anecdotes (particularly from all the experts in booze-making that he visits and interviews) and statistics; and it all works. The author prefers whiskey to wine, which is the opposite of me, but it’s all good reading. There’s a lot of chemistry here – things like azeotropic limit, fractional distillation, Erlenmeyer flasks, wood chemistry, H2S, etc. I’m a chemist by trade, so I was in geek heaven, but if you’re not scientifically inclined, this may get a bit tedious. Non-techies are allowed to skip the “sciency” stuff.
Kewlest New Word ...
Hagiographies (n., plural) : biographies that idolize their subjects
Others : Apotheosis (n.); Qualia (n.); Ur-Dram (n.; I never did find a definition for this)
Some archaeologists and anthropologists have argued that the production of beer induced human beings to settle down and develop permanent agriculture – to literally put down roots and cultivate grains instead of roam nomadically. The manufacture of alcohol was, arguably, the social and economic revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to become civilized human beings. It’s the apotheosis of human life on earth. It’s a miracle. (pg. 5)
When you take a sip of wine, you’re tasting a lot. The tongue is covered in taste cells – clustered into onion-shaped structures that we call taste buds. At the top of those cells are receptor molecules, chains of protein that sense external conditions. When the right molecule hits, the cell goes through all kinds of internal mechanics that lead up to giving adjacent nerve fibers a little squirt of chemicals called neurotransmitters, basically saying, “Hey, I got a taste here – let the brain know, wouldja?” (pg. 142)
“Booze is civilization in a glass.” (pg. 7 )
You would think that the whole booze-making process has been completely figured out, but that’s not the case. Historically, we don’t know when Man first started doing his own fermenting, let alone when he first started deliberately partaking of alcohol. Science-wise, we don’t know how the yeast does its thing, let alone how to get consistent-tasting results, year after year, when aging the liquor. Heck, we can’t even objectively quantify smells and tastes.
And despite all the hangovers we’ve had, no one knows exactly what causes them, or, sadly, how to reliably cure them. So if you’re an aspiring archaeologist or chemist, there is still a lot of research to be done.
9½ Stars. Highly recommended, although it helps if you are both a scientist and a partaker of booze. Subtract 1 star (each) if you don’t fall into those categories.