PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

In 'Proof', Science Writer Adam Rogers Investigates Booze, and Suffers Gladly for His Art

Should you indulge, I encourage you to pour your favorite tipple, settle into a comfortable chair, open the pages of Proof, and enjoy the "bar moment".


Proof: The Science of Booze

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 264 pages
Author: Adam Rogers
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-05
Amazon

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 Rogers' Proof.

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.