By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterWould you be willing to drink a foamy mixture of chemicals such as ethanol, lipids, glycoproteins and carbon dioxide?
Many people enjoy this concoction every day. It’s called beer.
Ethanol and carbon dioxide, more familiar as alcohol and bubbles, are two of the ingredients that make beer fun to drink. Glycoproteins — molecules made of sugar and protein — stick together as membranes that make the head on a beer more durable than, say, champagne bubbles. As for lipids, better known as fats, they break down in an un-tasty way over time, which is why beer doesn’t age as well as wine.
That’s just a sip of what you’ll learn from “Proof: The Science of Booze,” by Wired magazine editor Adam Rogers.
Speaking of champagne bubbles, perhaps you already know that they tend to form on microscopic imperfections on the inside of a drinking glass. But did you know they also form inside microscopic cellulose fibers that may be left behind when a glass is dried with a cloth or a paper towel? The invisibly tiny fibers are tubes with just enough interior space for bubbles to form. Rogers writes that the tubes “became ‘bubble guns,’ launching streams of as many as 30 bubbles per second toward the surface.”
Rogers once or twice presumes a bit of knowledge on the part of his readers. It helps if you remember enough high school chemistry — or have watched enough episodes of NHK’s popular whiskey-themed drama “Massan” — to understand how a still works.
You should also know that the word “malt” describes grain that has been water-softenend and partially germinated, a process that breaks its starches down into sugars so yeast can ferment them. (And now you do know.)
Aside from that, all you really need to know is what a few different drinks taste like — and that’s enjoyable research. For instance, the “oaky” flavor in certain wines comes from chemicals called tannins in the wood of the barrels in which the wine is aged. While an oak tree is alive, it builds up more tannins in the darker rings of its wood, which grow in the summer, than in the lighter rings, which grow in the spring. So good summers in the oak forest may contribute as much to your drinking experience as good years in the vineyard.
Of course, “drinking experience” is largely subjective. Scientific efforts to quantify it have ranged from minutely monitored wine tastings (for which “a group of sixty-somethings from the same swim club” were frequent volunteers) to the nightly administration of ethanol enemas (a study for which there was only one volunteer). Other experiments have included serving cocktails to people while they are stuck inside of PET scan machines and examining whether alcohol has a different effect on drinkers when they are distracted by an erotic movie playing in a bar-like environment built inside a laboratory.
It’s hard to disagree with Rogers’ comment on such studies: “booze research is fun, right?”
Reading about it is fun, too — and reading is hangover-free.
Where to read
At a well-stocked bar, preferably with a companion who won’t mind listening to all the trivia you’ll suddenly want to share.
Proof: The Science of Booze
By Adam Rogers