Point of Brew: Changes galore, but fundamentally unchanged

By March 2, 2011

Arkells Steam Brewery is still in operation in Stratton-St.-Margaret near Swindon in Wiltshire, England. When columnist Michael Lewis first visited this brewery in the early 1960s, it was driven by the eponymous steam engines. They are still at the brewery, though they no longer provide the motive power for the process. If today's breweries were named after the latest technology, they'd be "computer breweries." (Michael Lewis/Courtesy photo)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I have had several conversations recently about the extraordinary times in which we live, mostly about the technological wonders that surround us every day. Technology dashes in to every facet of our lives, from our medical care to the way we communicate or travel or entertain ourselves or find out about things in workplaces or at leisure.

And I am astonished at the rate of change that, in many fields is exponential (for example, in the field of computer hardware, exemplified by Moore’s Law) and I’m intrigued by the arguments of The Singularity that envisions a time when the logic of exponential change suggests super-intelligent entities will emerge that are beyond the capability of the human mind to comprehend and control.

Nevertheless, as a simple brewer, I’m a bit suspicious of exponential growth conceived to be never-ending — it reminds me too much of a perpetual motion machine.

Despite these astonishing technological changes that affect how we live our lives, they are probably nothing compared to the change in quality of life that attended upon electrification of private homes, indoor plumbing, the replacement of horse-power by machine-power, understanding diseases and infection, and the emergence of the penny post and true free lending libraries, all of which happened more than a century ago.

Those extraordinary changes have become the norm and fundamental fact in our American life; throw the switch, flush the toilet, drive the car, see the doctor, send a letter, read a book. Contemporary inventions illuminate and enrich our lives, in some cases in spectacular ways, but do not radically change it.

And so, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The same is true of the brewing industry.

What brings this to mind is an event to take place in my Sudwerk classroom in a week’s time: A former student who took my brewing classes at UCD and joined Anheuser-Busch out of school, will talk to my class. For many years, Jim Misthos has been the resident brewmaster and general manager of the Van Nuys (Los Angeles area) plant of Anheuser-Busch, which is among the largest breweries in the world. He recently retired. He asked what he should talk to the class about. Among other things, I suggested he address changes in the brewing industry during his 30-year career.

It has since struck me that, in a certain sense, there are no changes.

The brewing industry underwent an astonishing series of changes before the turn of the last century along with all those other changes that I listed above. At that time, a rational scientific basis for brewers’ traditional practices emerged: knowledge of microbiology of yeasts and bacteria and sanitation and biochemistry of enzymes and proteins and carbohydrates became available, and brewers installed engines to do the heavy work and replaced ice for cooling with mechanical refrigeration, for example. Brewers were early users of the latest scientific and technological advances because they could afford it and because they were so appropriate to their daily work and recurring problems.

Of course, there have been massive changes in breweries in recent times. Modern breweries are temples built to the efficient and safe and (these days) green and energy-efficient methods of making beer; they perform the most perfect symphony of electrification, indoor plumbing and sanitation on the planet. Yet the biology involved and the process itself has not changed one bit: As they have always done, brewers mill malt, mash it with hot water, strain off the liquid wort and boil it, cool, add yeast and ferment, let the yeast settle and bottle the remaining beer.

It’s what I call the Ancient and Unchanging Process.

The changes that have taken place are the same sort of changes that we experience in our daily lives, that is, the computerization and databasing and wirelessnessing and interfacing of everything and reordering the enterprise around better economic strategies. Brewers were ever proud of their advanced technology. In the old days, a brewery might be a “steam brewery,” celebrating its advance from muscle power to steam-engine power. Today, the equivalent would be a “computer brewery” or maybe a “flat-screen TV brewery,” though I do not know of any so named.

And so, as the wonders of computers, the Internet, iPads, cell phones, e-mails and texts, and video games and downloading and Facebook and Twitter and what-not, invade and indulge our daily lives, and much as the same technology has streamlined breweries, the processes that make our daily lives tolerable and make our beers excellent remain fundamentally unchanged.

Although I do not possess a cell phone or an iPad and I don’t do Facebook or Tweet, I am no Luddite. But, delighted as I am to live in the age of the Internet and to revel in its benefits, if push came to shove, I would opt out of all those clever things in favor of throwing a light switch at dusk and flushing the toilet when necessary.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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