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Proof: The Science of Booze

Adam Rogers

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: May 2014)

Get Your Proof

Oh, the solitary joys of eating and reading! Pity the person who dismisses either act as diminished for being performed in company with the other. Nay; we who do so daily know them enhanced. 


But what of drinking and reading? 


The answer, friends, is a resounding yes. Should you indulge in alcoholic beverages, I strongly suggest pouring your favorite tipple, settling into a comfortable chair, and opening Adam RogersProof.


I myself was drinking a neat Bulleit bourbon when I began Proof. Drinking hard liquor always reminds me of Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. In this bestselling book, Guiliano tut-tuts hard alcohol consumption as unladylike, not to mention full of empty calories. Nor does a lady drink her nightly glass of wine without food, which might, heavens above, loosen her inhibitions and appetites, leading to a second piece of baguette. Quelle horreur!.


Rogers agrees with Guiliano on the matter of calories, but is far more egalitarian on the nicities. He’s also interested in why humanity has pursued creating and imbibing booze for millennia.


Proof begins with “the bar moment”. If you drink, I need not explain. If not, it is the moment you enter a bar and sit down, hot or cold, harassed, irritable, and order an alcoholic beverage. You are served, take a sip, and time stops.


Your body slides toward equilibrium. The drink is agreeably bitter, sweet, and tart, with the peculiar flavor only alcohol has, burning pleasantly as it slips down your throat.


You feel much, much better. 


Rogers wants to define the history and physiology behind that moment. A writer for Wired and Scotch connoisseur, Rogers presents the surprisingly arcane science of liquor in accessible, often humorous prose, making him a marvelous tour guide. Of the stylistic decision to spell whiskey as the Scottish do, dropping the final “e”: “Deal with it.”


On making the fiscally unfortunate discovery known as single malt scotches, Rogers writes:


When I was in grad school I was poor… So when my father and his credit card came to visit, I took him there (to a fine restaurant whose bar was stocked with single malts) and told him we were going to drink some… Neither of us had ever had it… Our glasses of whisky arrived and we both took our first sniff and sip. And, at the same time, said ‘Oh, crap.’ Because we knew it was going to become an expensive hobby.


Without Saccharomyces cerevisiae, there is no booze. That’s yeast, friends, the same substance that allows bread to rise. It can also cause nasty infections. Yeast is a microbe; summing up a complex process, it eats sugar, creating ethanol—booze.


Some yeasts are so precious they are carefully housed. Rogers pays a visit to the National Collection of Yeast Cultures, in Norwich, England, where various strains of British brewing yeasts are kept under laboratory conditions. When flooding decimated Jennings Brewery in 2009, killing its yeasts, they were able to rebuild using strains stored at the National Collection. Readers will either be amused or horrified to learn that “over 100 years of microbiology” is stored on a Macintosh clone and handwritten index cards.


In chapter two, Rogers addresses the sugar molecule, something both humans and yeasts enjoy consuming. The difference is that humans can digest starches. Yeasts cannot, leading into a fascinating explication of sake-making.


Sake is distilled from rice, a grain. Because grains are not a simple sugars, readily available to yeasts, they must be inoculated with a fungus called koji to become edible. Koji is central to Japanese cuisine, necessary for miso paste and soy sauce. It’s also part of genus Aspergillus oryzae. Most fungi in this genus are toxic, killing humans most unpleasantly (Think fungal infections. Think bleeding lungs). Koji, fortunately, just converts starches to sugar, making them something incredibly delicious to drink with sushi. 


On western soil, yeasts have it easier: they can ferment fruits. Rogers tells us that early American colonists fermented apples, pumpkins, persimmons, and maple, which is the sap of a tree, not a fruit. But the ideal fruit to ferment, of course,  is the grape. It grows easily, is laden with sugars, and generates few volatile compounds. Domesticated grapes, Rogers writes, “in general sit and roll over on command.” To that end, vintners are constantly tinkering with them to create the ultimate cultivar. And we humans are happy quaffers of those attempts.


From sugars Rogers moves to fermentation, without which yeast and sugar could go home. Fermentation predates humans, who have been trying to control this process some 10,000 years. Anyone who has ever tried making a humble batch of sauerkraut can tell you that fermentation is both dirt common and utterly amazing.


Sit a large jar of shredded cabbage and saltwater on your countertop. Place a clean weight atop it. Leave for three days. At the end you’ll either have something slightly bubbling, with a clean, deliciously sour smell, or you’ll have the beginnings of something disgusting, like a sandwich forgotten in a seventh-grader’s school locker.


In the name of journalism, Rogers visits San Diego’s White Labs to help learn the whys of fermentation, where he tests his professional mettle by sampling a beer. In a technical page, he explains how fermentation is a by-product of yeasts converting sugar to energy. He concludes with one the best lines since we lost Douglas Adams:


“Yay! We have made booze.”


Another great line comes after meeting Professor Douglas Bamforth, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at the University of California, Davis.Rogers compares a beer with Bamforth to listening to music with David Bowie. After sadly noticing almost all beers are ruined for a man of Professor Bamforth’s expertise, the two go out for a beer. (What else could they do?) Rogers eyes his beer as Bamforth might, realizing “It’s a freaking disaster, this beer.”


Must I natter on or have I convinced you to read Proof?


Okay, a bit more. That hangover you have? Nobody knows why you have it. Did you know that 23 percent of the population doesn’t even get hangovers? According to Rogers, the technical term for these people is “jerks”. Or this: humans olfaction is poor. Our ability to taste isn’t so hot, either. Given white wine with red food coloring, we’ll think we’re drinking red wine. We’re the same with drunkenness: our behaviors rely heavily on context.


Long before artisanal coffeehouses dotted streetcorners like mushrooms, there were bars. People gathered at such places out of human need for conviviality. For a drink. For the bar moment.


Now imagine yourself seated at the bar, your favorite drink in hand. A man sits down, begins speaking. Uh-oh….trouble…no, wait: this is interesting. He’s telling you the story of those glittering bottles behind the bar, their journey from base substance—potatoes, rye, grapes, apples, rice—to the fermented, mind-altering potion in the glass you’re sipping. 


This guy isn’t some drunken windbag. He’s interesting and cool and funny. You want to keep him talking. Bartender!  Buy this man—ah, yes, a whisky! A whisky for Mr. Rogers, please!


Please read Proof responsibly.

Rating:

Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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