Note: some people seem to be confused about the tone of this blog post and are taking it entirely too seriously. Travis is a friend of mine and this is just me giving my friend shit because that’s how friends amuse each other sometimes.
So my blog post from two blog posts ago, “What Will Make Modern Times Different, Pt. 3”, has caused a small kerfuffle on the series of tubes. After the world discovered that we’ll have pretty cans, my friend Adam Nason over at Beerpulse.com decided to repost my earlier blog post about brewing ingredients and processes.
Responses were split: Twitter was all “Fuck yeah, right on, duder”, while the Beerpulse comments section was all “You’re a horrible person and no other brewery will ever help you ever” (actually, a few people defended my point on Beerpulse, too). Results were similar last week on BeerAdvocate.
My buddy Doug, co-owner and brewer at Societe, then texted me that he wanted to debate the “handmade” issue over beers at O’Brien’s. Since it seemed like a good opportunity to try the O’Brien’s Anniversary beers from Societe and Alpine, I offered to humor him with my presence (the beers were excellent).
Our in-person debate was similar to the blog response from Travis—Doug’s manservant at Societe—except we did a lot more gossiping and complaining. Since Travis responded to my post line-by-line, I will offer the same service here.
“It is easy to see why someone who does not/has not make beer on a professional level would think that all a brewer does is turn valves and flip switches.”
I do not think that, nor did I claim it. However, I don’t think it is necessary for someone to be a professional to have an opinion about something. I have never held elected office, and yet I have opinions about political policy and how it should be made. I believe those opinions are valid despite my not being a pro at policy-making. Etc, etc.
“But a good brewer, like a good chef, is going to be making adjustments based on observation; something automation cannot do. It is not a matter of just opening a valve and turning on a pump. It is a matter of when and how much to open a valve, and when and at what speed to turn on a pump. You can set your automation to do these things to be the same every time, but the beer, like any natural product, will be different and will require special handling with variances in the raw ingredients, processes, and even the weather; things that are outside of the control of robots.”
I think Travis might not see the full potential of automation. A truly automated system is not one that repeats the same steps every time, it’s one that creates the same product every time. With enough sensors and the right software, an automated system could account for all of the variables Travis lists. Such a system is just out of our price range.
“Do you think top chefs should be replaced by automated machines? This has been done. Machines make great and consistent microwave pizzas, but do you think a machine can make a $50 plate of food as well as an experienced chef with his hands? It may take robots to make the most consistent beer possible, but it takes skill and experience to make the best beer possible.”
Yes and yes. It’s unknown if robots will ever have the creative potential to make a world class plate of food without being programmed to do so, but again, an AI machine that’s able to process enough variables is every bit as capable as a human—more capable even—of replicating a world class plate of food. It just comes down to building the right hardware and software.
“How can you say there are no grades of ingredients? Of course there are. The beef sourced by McDonald’s is lower quality than the beef sourced by The Addison at the Grand Del Mar. It is fine if one prefers the beef at McDonald’s; I do not judge someone for that preference. Likewise, there is a range in quality of malt, hops, yeast, and water. Selection based on preference is an absolute must, but higher quality ingredients will make better beer than lower quality ingredients.”
This is a bit of a straw man; I made sure to say “there are no grades of brewing ingredients,” but I’ll play along anyway. In blind taste tests it’s often impossible for people to tell the difference between “high” and “low” quality ingredients. But as it relates to brewing, Travis admits preference is subjective but then insists there are objective standards for quality. Doug gave the example of small kernel malt with inconsistent color versus plump kernels with consistent color.
The standards that value the plump, consistent (i.e. chemical-filled and malted by robots) malt over the inconsistent, small kernel (i.e. organic and malted traditionally) malt, are as artificial as any other standard. So if you prize consistency, say, over environmental responsibility and traditional methodology, then by all means, call the robot kernels “the finest” and the organic kernels “the less than finest.” But just realize that other people would look at it the other way around, and their opinion would be valid.
“Beer is and should be a natural product. It historically has been made from natural ingredients (grain, hops, yeast, water). It goes through a natural process of fermentation. Fermentation is a natural anaerobic metabolic process the yeast use to create energy and reproduce. If you want to use artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, or preservatives in your beer then it is not natural. It would be what I call a ‘malternative’ and I probably wouldn’t drink it.”
What exactly is ‘natural’ about massive industrial barley farms that have replaced the largest and most biodiverse prairie system on Earth with a chemical-fueled monoculture? Ditto for hops. And what is ‘natural’ about piping Colorado River water to San Diego so people can make beer with it? And what is ‘natural’ about isolating and cultivating uniform yeast strains? And is the hop extract used at Societe not an “artificial flavor”? Is fermentation any more ‘natural’ a process than nuclear fission?
Beer does not make itself. People do. And what we do is every bit as natural as what any other animal does.