Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


October 12, 2009

Taming of the Brew

Physicist and homebrewer Mark Denny explains how mainstream beer and the macrobrewers who make it lost their way.

Michael Gluckstadt

Mark Denny is a man who loves beer. He understands its history and finer points. He brews it at home by hand. And the native Englishman would delight in sharing a beer with anyone who shares his passion—just don't offer him a Miller Lite.

"My only objection to macroswill," Denny tells Gelf, "is that the macrobreweries call their product 'beer'. It was, once, but today they should maybe relabel it 'rice beer' or 'near beer' or something." Mass production and an eye on the bottom of line has taken what Denny refers to as "the elixir of life" in the glossary of his book Froth!: The Science of Beer and turned it into a cheap imitation. Just leave out a glass of big-name brew, Denny instructs in a footnote, and after the cold temperature and artificial carbonation have worn away, you can taste the metallic aftertaste and artificial off-flavors that lie at its core.

Mark Denny
"You can homebrew excellent beer for a fifth the cost of a macrobrewed beer bought from a liquor store."

Mark Denny

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Denny tells Gelf about his favorite beers, what makes for good science writing, and how modern mainstream beer got so bad.

Gelf Magazine: In Froth, you mix a beer-lover's passion with a scientist's precision. In what ways have those two roles influenced each other?

Mark Denny: My homebrewing benefits from the scientific method of proceeding, which I learned in school. That is, record everything you do, so you can learn from mistakes. In this way I have, over the last 15 years or so, been able to hone my homebrewing skills to fit my lifestyle. My beer is good, but not championship stuff—to make it much better would require more time and expense than I am prepared to put into it. I may try something new in the brewing method, write down what I did, see if it made the beer better, and, if so, include the change in my brewing process. This is the trial-and-error approach adopted by many brewers over many centuries. It is quite sound scientifically, even though there are no test tubes or computers involved.

Gelf Magazine: The book begins with a survey of beer—or, as the case may be, ale—throughout the ages. Historically, do you believe beer has had a unifying influence or a divisive one?

Mark Denny: It can be either. In my experience beer magnifies emotions, so it can make you happier, sadder, or angrier. Much of the bad behavior of soccer fans in Europe is fueled by beer. On the other hand, I have felt connected to people in foreign countries as a result of going to a local bar or pub. I remember, to give one small example, seeing an amiably drunk German in a pub in Berlin and thinking how similar he was to the many amiable and drunk people I had seen back in Scotland. Beer is a universal language.

Gelf Magazine: Of the different types of beer among earlier cultures, which would you be most interested in tasting? Which people would you most like to drink with?

Mark Denny: Yikes, that's a hard one. Beer in days gone by tended to be a lot stronger than beer today, at least in the English speaking world. I guess I would like to go back to Dickens's time and share a pint of porter with Tony Weller. If you insist on a real historical character, then talking to Arthur Guinness about how and why he decided to brew his version ("stout porter"—later abbreviated to "stout") would be very interesting.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote that beer recipes have been discovered inscribed on ancient Egyptian tablets. Have you ever considered brewing a batch of original Pyramid Ale?

Mark Denny: Are you kidding? It would likely be disgusting to a modern palate. Brews that far back were made from just about anything, and were drunk through a straw to prevent swallowing the floaters and other foreign bodies that had been added (they threw in any wild herb for flavoring back then). I mean, the brewers may have made beer that was appreciated by their contemporaries, but today I doubt that Sphinx Lager or Cheops Fine Ale would cut the mustard.

Gelf Magazine: You really have it in for the large corporate breweries and the mainstream beer they produce—macrobreweries and macroswill, in your words. Why is their product so much worse than traditional or craft beers?

Mark Denny: Not all macrobrewers make crap beer—look at Guinness. Also, the German brewers provide excellent beer for their domestic market. The problem is that the competition is cut-throat. There are maybe a couple of dozen macrobreweries that distribute beer worldwide, and to stay competitive they must cut costs. With such a large volume—typically 10 million barrels per year—every cent shaved off production costs saves them millions. So they have a strong incentive to brew beer for the lowest possible cost. This is achieved by substituting lower-quality ingredients for traditional ingredients (e.g. replacing much of the malted barley with rice), and paring down the brewing process to the shortest possible time. Both these cost-cutting measures adversely influence beer flavor.

Gelf Magazine: Are any of them redeemable? Could you drink any at a sporting event if nothing else were available?

Mark Denny: Oh, sure. I remember a vacation in New Mexico when we had to make that choice. On a hot day, any cold, carbonated beverage is satisfying. My only objection to macroswill (a name that is not my invention, I must say) is that the macrobreweries call their product "beer." It was, once, but today they should maybe relabel it "rice beer" or "near beer" or something.

Gelf Magazine: While you're a connoisseur of all types of beer, what style is your personal favorite?

Mark Denny: I hail from England, originally, and so my favorite beers are English ones—though I have enjoyed many excellent German and Belgian beers also. Personally, I like IPA and stout—two very different beers, both of which are well represented in many American microbreweries.

Gelf Magazine: What are some of the benefits of home brewing?

Mark Denny: A homebrewer (or nanobrewer, as I call us in my book) can control the type of beer brewed: flavors, color, carbonation level, etc. It means that the beer you make will be something you like. Also, if you are on a budget, you get this excellent beer for a fifth the cost of a macrobrewed beer bought from a liquor store.

Gelf Magazine: How does your beer compare to a decent craft brew?

Mark Denny: My own home brew is not so good as the best microbrewery beer, but still pretty good. I'm particularly pleased with my stout, which I brew each fall for winter consumption. Expert home brewers will spend a lot more time and will use a lot more fancy equipment than I do, and their beers may approach microbrew quality. I should add that it is very hard to make a homebrew that is quite as bland as a mass-produced lite beer.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of macrobrewer efforts to imitate the craft style—like the god-awful Budweiser American Ale?

Mark Denny: Never tried Bud Am Ale, and your adjective suggests that I shouldn't. Some macrobrewers cloak themselves in a mantle of brewing respectability by buying up microbreweries of long standing and good reputation (e.g. Miller taking over Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., a century-old craft brewer in Wisconsin, in the late '80s). Others make their own craft beers. The effort is to be applauded, if the beer is any good.

Gelf Magazine: According to your website, in addition to the four books you've already published, you have another three forthcoming. How do you manage to be so prolific?

Mark Denny: I'm retired! You may have heard the old line about retired folk wondering how the hell they ever found time to work. Well, the difference is that, when you are retired, you get to work on the things that you want to work on. I like writing, and I feel that scientists (I was trained as a physicist) really should do a better job of explaining their field to the general public—something that we have been very bad at, in the past.

Gelf Magazine: Are those projects near completion?

Mark Denny: Book Five is about the physics of large engineering structures (bridges, skyscrapers and the like) and is due out next spring. I have just completed Book Six, about the physics of ballistics—the manuscript will be shipped to my publisher before the end of the month. Book Seven is about biomechanics—my biggest project to date, even though I have a co-author. The publisher is mulling over our manuscript.

Gelf Magazine: Your books do an admirable job explaining dense technical information to a non-scientific public. Is that your goal as a writer?

Mark Denny: Thank you for saying so. Yes, that is indeed my goal. The bane of popular-science writers is that scientists talk to Mother Nature using mathematics—it is the only language we have in common. Trouble is, most people don't speak math, so I have to act as interpreter. I spend much effort in trying to explain what is really going on without using math (some math may be included for readers who like it, but those who don't will always be able to read around the equations). I got an email out of the blue from a reader saying he bought my third book (about the physics of sailing), not because he was interested in the subject, but because he really liked the technical appendix which explained aerodynamic lift and drag—a notoriously complex and misunderstood topic. This kind of positive feedback is meat and drink to me.

Gelf Magazine: Are there any scientific writers you think do a particularly good job of making difficult concepts understandable to a mass audience?

Mark Denny: The first scientists who addressed the need to convey their subject to a general audience in a non-trivial way were biologists. Stephen J. Gould in the U.S. and Richard Dawkins in England told us about evolutionary biology in a series of well-written and intelligent books. Later, writers from other fields have contributed significantly. In physics, the "sexy" topics of cosmology and quantum mechanics have received a lot of attention. Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time spring to mind.

Gelf Magazine: Is there a beer you recommend that goes down nicely with your book? Something that illustrates the concepts you explore?

Mark Denny: Beer and books? An unusual combination. There is a bookstore in Washington, DC, (Kramerbooks) that serves both. Hmm. My book is not particularly heavy, but it has plenty of body and, I hope, leaves a pleasant aftertaste. So let's go for an IPA.

Related in Gelf: Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, celebrates the end of the beer-industrial complex.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Food
- posted on Oct 21, 09

Beer me.

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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