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Who cares? Who gives a fig about the science of brewing? People don’t want obscure details about the chemistry or the process. All they want to know is what the beer tastes like, looks like and smells like.

I’ve heard that. A lot.

The classic is when the beer industry starts debating messaging around cask-conditioned beer. Apparently the concept of secondary fermentation is too complicated for – or just irrelevant to – the beer drinking public. Really?

Well, ok. The science in the supply chain or in brewing operations may not be top of mind when standing at the bar ordering a round. And sure, the enzyme activity involved in plant growth and fermentation may not help determine any choice of drink. But that doesn’t mean those things are never of any interest. That doesn’t mean we should keep quiet about the extraordinary science involved in our industries.

Step in the British Science Association.

Crisp Laboratories

Science-Week-Blog-Image-LabThanks to the Association for 192 years of promoting science. Thanks for aiming to make science more relevant, representative, and connected to society. And thanks for introducing British Science Week. It’s a week anyone can use to promote science, technology, engineering and maths – the ‘STEM’ subjects.

British Science Week provides a springboard to engage people with the disciplines that underly every industry, and aspect of life.

The theme for this year’s British Science Week is ‘connections’.

That’s very apt for farmers, maltsters, brewers and pub operators. We’re inextricably connected through the supply chain – and the multiple layers of science and engineering that run through it. We have science stories in abundance, and should seek for inspiring ways to tell them.

B5033-Science-Week-Crops-in-a-FieldTo attract the next generation of talented, passionate people into farming, malting and brewing, we need to excite them about our industries. That means igniting their curiosity about the awesome STEM elements involved in them.

Picture barley growing in a field. Now a pint of beer, or glass of whisky.

You know the connections. You know about the science of plants; the mechanical engineering that enables the sowing, fertilising, and harvesting; the chemistry involved in transformation of the raw grain to malted grain; the alchemy performed in the mash tuns to give sweet wort and in coppers to give bitter wort; and the conversion of sugars and yeasts into carbon dioxide and alcohol. To name but a few.

But for most people, those things are a mystery. Even if they know that beer and whisky start with barley, they would struggle to tell you what malt is, let alone how what was once malted grain somehow became a flavoursome liquid.

Admittedly, you don’t have to understand anything about barley, malt, beer or whisky to enjoy their aroma, flavour or sensations. But lack of awareness of connections in the supply chain can result in poor decision making. Of course, the beer and whisky supply chain is unlikely to lead back to child labour or the destruction of rain forests.

That’s the point. The malt used by craft brewers and distillers in Britain is – with very few exceptions – from barley that is grown here. Rarely are craft brewers using adjuncts with thousands of food miles to their names.

There are good plant science stories around some of the barley that is grown here. Take barley grains from the past – catalogued and lying dormant in a seed bank in the John Innes Centre, in Norfolk. They include barleys that once did well, but that have been superseded by new varieties with greater pest or disease resistance, better weather tolerance, or larger yields. They also include heritage barleys such as Chevallier a variety that dates back to the 1820s.




B5033-Science-Week-Blog-Lab-Image-3The Chevallier narrative may start with the removal from the shoe, and subsequent planting on the land of Dr John Chevallier of some fine barley grains. It may go on to relate the development of a variety that went on to be used in brewing for more than 100 years. But is had do much more to it than that.

Every barley story could delve into the anatomy of individual seeds; the process of propagation and influencing factors; the impact of different faming methods including crop rotation – and a whole host of other STEM questions. All of them can be used to inspire awe and wonder.

Sure, we shouldn’t assume that people know about embryo growth in plants, or modification of the endosperm by enzymes. Just like we shouldn’t assume they understand fermentation or secondary fermentation. But that might be because our industries have spent too long drawing an equivalence between understanding, and being interested. Interest can be stimulated.

Malt-on-FloorsIf snippets – or even longer accounts – of science, technology, engineering and maths in narratives around cereals, malt, beer and whisky aren’t provided, every variety, style, product and brand risks genericism. At the same time as losing the opportunity to differentiate, it fails to educate. It fails to celebrate the very thing on which our industries are based; the very stuff of life: science.

So, once again, thanks to the British Science Association for reminding us to promote the things of awe and wonder in our supply chain, our work and our output.

And let’s work together on this one.

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