4.15 — Beer: A Revolution is Brewing

Host Walter Isaacson and guests talk about suds, from early, informal recipes to the latest AI-led innovations meant to personalize beer to your exact tastes.
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Beer has come a long way from monks brewing small batches in the mountains.

See just how far this delicious brew has traveled, and how tech has helped along the way.

What you’ll hear in this episode:

● A story about a bear (0:00)

● Four simple ingredients (3:06)

● Temperature regulation (4:36)

● Perfecting the lager (9:38)

● A craft beer revolution (14:18)

● Hopping on a trend (20:02)

● True beer rebels (26:32)

● A little revolution in every pint (30:18)

This episode is just a taste. Here are some other trailblazers in the world of beer:

● Breweries raise awareness with “Black is Beautiful” craft beers.

● Unsold Guinness is used to feed Christmas trees during lockdown.

● Toast Ale creates beer from unused bread that would otherwise become food waste.

● Brewer accepts plastic waste in lieu of payment for beer during World Oceans Week.

● How reclaimed water (from various sources) is helping breweries craft their beers.

Guest List

  • James Sumner is a historian of technology at the University of Manchester. His research interests include chemical knowledge in the beer-brewing industry and the role of science and technology in local, regional and civic identity.
  • Matthias Ebner is the International Brand Ambassador at Germany’s Weihenstephan Brewery and a former student at the brewing school.
  • Ken Grossman is co-founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Sierra Nevada is the 7th largest beer producer in America.
  • Sam Calagione is the head brewer and founder of Dogfish Head Brewery and the inventor of continuous hopping.
  • Hew Leith is the founder and CEO of IntelligentX. IntelligentX is the world’s first beer brewed by AI.

“We embody the everlasting spirit of American ingenuity and that position of being Davids up against Goliath.”

— Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Walter Isaacson: In the eighth century, a Benedictine monk named Saint Corbinian left Paris on a long pilgrimage to visit the Pope. As he crossed the foothills of the Alps into Bavaria, Corbinian attacked. Legend has it that a ferocious bear charged from the woods and killed his pack horse. The bear then turned to face the monk. It was ready to strike, but as a man of faith, Corbinian was not afraid to die. The monk stood his ground and the bear stood his. The standoff lasted for several moments and then Corbinian did something that shocked the bear. He asked the bear to carry his bags to Rome as an atonement for killing his horse. Tamed by the Monk’s presence, the bear accepted his penance, so Corbinian saddled and loaded his bags on the bear’s back and continued his journey.

Walter Isaacson: When they reached the gates of Rome, Corbinian release the bear back into the wild. The Pope was so amazed by Corbinian’s treacherous tale that he commanded the monk to return to Bavaria and establish a monastery on the very hill where the bear had killed his horse. So Saint Corbinian turned to the foothills of what are now the German Alps and built his monastery. He named it Weihenstephan Abbey. But Corbinian and his fellow monks didn’t just recite Scripture and commune with God in their abbey, they also brewed beer.

Walter Isaacson: Today, more than a thousand years later, Weihenstephan Brewery is still making beer and it’s earned the title of the oldest brewery in the world, but Weihenstephan is not just famous for its longevity. It is also recognized for its many contributions to the science of brewing. And so what began as a monastic miracle has become a testament to the human thirst for innovation. And our thirst for beer.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 1: The beer of today is brewed under spotlessly clean condition. Now you’re going to taste a real beer. Not bad at all. Dude, however, I suggest the six pack. A beverage as old as history.

Walter Isaacson: Water, barley, hops, and yeast, four simple ingredients that produce a delicious, refreshing and enchanting drink. Globally, people consume nearly 50 billion gallons of beer every year. If you go into your local specialty beer store, it seems like there’s an endless variety of recipes you can enjoy. And if you’ve ever toured a brewery, it’s conceivable that you might mistake it for a chemistry lab. Brewing tasty suds is a science, but for most of history, beer was a craft shrouded in mystery. In the 18th century, nearly every village in England had a brew house that crafted its own ales, ales brewed from recipes that were handed down from generation to generation. It was a tradition, not a science.

Walter Isaacson: And in London, beer was becoming a big business. Investors saw it as a commodity of almost limitless demand. But with investment comes risk. There were dozens of variables that could alter the outcome of a batch of beer. If something went wrong, thousands of barrels could be spoiled at once. Investors might go bankrupt. So for the industry to grow, it needed a way to standardize the brewing process, but the traditional brewers were committed to their methods. And so it took an unlikely pioneer to disrupt the entire industry, a man who wasn’t even English.

James Sumner: Michael Combrune was not from a brewing family.

Walter Isaacson: James Sumner is a historian of technology at the University of Manchester.

James Sumner: They were Huguenot refugees so they were French Protestants who had come over to England. They were wealthy. Most of the family were merchants, or they were traders of one kind or another. So it was a little bit unusual that he became a brewer.

Walter Isaacson: Michael Combrune was a talented mathematician and chemist with a keen interest in beer. So he joined the Brewing Company of London, where he learned about the craft and business of brewing. Then in 1743, Combrune left London and moved to the countryside where he set up his own brewery.

James Sumner: It was a village, a few miles outside the city, but he was close enough to London that he had lumping clients. He knew all the London brewers and he knew how they operated. And he got interested in the differences between different kinds of beer and why they were different and how to simulate the products of different localities. And this was closely tied up with the question of control.

Walter Isaacson: The question of control became Michael Combrune’s obsession. The hills of the English countryside were different from the porters of London, but he learned that all beer shared two basic challenges, maintaining consistent flavor and avoiding spoilage. So Combrune transformed his little brewery into a beer laboratory. As he tinkered, he realized there was only one way to guarantee the outcome of a batch of beer, temperature. In Combrune’s time, thermometers were fragile and expensive and very few professionals had found practical use for them. The one exception was the medical profession. An influential Dutch doctor named Hermann Boerhaave had discovered the relationship between the human body’s temperature and certain illnesses. For Combrune, this was a eureka moment.

James Sumner: Michael Combrune read Hermann Boerhaave’s work and understood how important the thermometer was in understanding the human body. And he thought I’m going to apply the thermometer to the case of beer. I’m actually going to be able to work out when beer is healthy and when it’s sick by using this thermometer.

Walter Isaacson: Combrune eventually discovered that almost every variable in the production of beer could be expressed in degrees Fahrenheit. And he created an entirely new field of brewing science in which every variable could be controlled with a thermometer and a simple equation.

James Sumner: For instance, if you knew the length of time you wanted to mature the beer for and you knew the temperature to which the Malta bean dried, okay, you could actually plug those values into an equation. He came up with various equations for this process. And you made an adjustment for the quantity of hops and out of that equation would pop the temperature to which you were supposed to take the mash. So he came up with different values for different kinds of beer. The value you would use for London Porter was not the same as the value you would use for a Pale ale. This was the first set of detailed instructions for how to brew.

Walter Isaacson: Thermometry transformed brewing from alchemy into science. Simple as it sounds, it was one of the most important innovations in the history of beer. When Combrune published his discovery, many breweries in London were skeptical, but investors and brewers eventually caught on. They realized that by controlling the variables that led to spoiled batches of beer, such as temperature, their risk went down and their profits went up. Not only that, the beer was safer to drink and it tasted better too. I guess you could say the writing was on the wall, or the barrel

Walter Isaacson: By the 19th century, most breweries in Europe had adopted new technologies like thermometry to improve the quality and efficiency of brewing beer. The technological revolution soon reached Bavaria with the great tradition began by Saint Corbinian was undergoing a change

Walter Isaacson: In the early 19th century, the Bavarian state government closed the monastery and took over the brewery. In order to ensure a steady supply of both grain and beer for his people, the King of Bavaria decided to open an agricultural and brewing school at Weihenstephan. Matthias Ebner is the International Brand Ambassador at Weihenstephan and a former student at the brewing school.

Matthias Ebner: And in 1865, actually there was the first brewing course, a one-semester course of knowledge in brewing and how to improve brewing. If you had the time and the money you could then attend Weihenstephan to do this one-semester course. And it came such kind of brewing technician, brewmaster, whatever.

Walter Isaacson: It’s the world’s first beer university. Today, it’s part of the Technical University of Munich. And it is here with the hallowed brewing tradition of Weihenstephan meets a rigor of an engineering school. Like every academic field, brewing has its innovators and the most famous one is a man named Ludwig Narziss. He developed the technology to efficiently produce what is now the most common beer in the entire world, the lager

Matthias Ebner: Professor Narziss is a legend. Once I wanted to describe my mother which impact Mr. Narziss was for the brewing industry. And I said, well, what Einstein was for modern physics, Professor Narziss is for modern brewing.

Walter Isaacson: The Einstein of beer came to Weihenstephan as a student in the 1940s. He eventually earned his PhD in brewing science and became a teacher at his Alma mater. Professor Narziss devoted his life to lager. Lager was a notoriously difficult beer to brew because the behavior of the yeast was so unpredictable. The result was a beer that could vary widely in flavor, bitterness and color. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Professor Narziss systematically studied and analyzed every strain of lager yeast in Germany. Much like Michael Combrune, he made the Weihenstephan Brewery his laboratory. Finally, in 1970 Narziss solved the puzzle.

Matthias Ebner: He picked out that special yeast because he was, it brings the best efficiency, the best taste, the best tastes stability, which is especially for breweries, a very important factor to have a stable taste and flavor quality for a longer time. And you can say that lager yeast created or developed at the university laboratories in Weihenstephan is today, I would guess, the most used beer yeast strain in the world.

Walter Isaacson: That’s no exaggeration. Lager is by far the most popular type of beer in the world. It’s brewed in nearly 150 countries. And Weihenstephan’s strain of lager, yeast is the most common variety in use.

Walter Isaacson: Today, the Weihenstephan Brewery and the technical university work hand in hand to develop the most important breakthroughs in the science of beer. Think about some of the most important innovations in modern brewing, automation, big data analysis, continuous fermentation, recycled bottling, nonalcoholic, beer and Whirlpool filtration. Every one of these has been developed in part by the modern academics and brewers at Weihenstephan. Not bad for a brewery founded by a humble monk and his pet bear. It might seem like a paradox that the world’s oldest brewery is associated with the industry’s newest and most cutting-edge technology, but throughout history, some of the most important innovations in brewing have come from unlikely characters

Walter Isaacson: Today, there are more than 7,000 craft breweries in the United States brewing a rich variety of beers, but in the late 1970s, that number was just around 40. Back then, most of the beer you bought in stores was lager like the kind Ludwig Narziss perfected. The beer was refreshing, but it wasn’t very diverse. An opportunity existed to disrupt the marketplace but seizing that opportunity would take more than just innovators. It would take rebels.

Ken Grossman: My name’s Ken Grossman, I’m the co-founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. I started 40 years ago making beer and still love doing it today.

Walter Isaacson: The first beer rebels were home brewers, enthusiastic connoisseurs who experimented with alternative recipes and methods in their kitchens. Ken Grossman was one of the first rebels. As a boy, he was constantly taking apart appliances to learn how they work. When he got older, he fell in love with two things, hiking in the mountains and brewing beer. And so in his early 20s, Grossman set up a home brew shop in the town of Chico, California. And he started tinkering. Grossman knew how to make beers with richer flavors, deeper colors, and more interesting aromas than lagers. But his challenge was in scaling up his production.

Ken Grossman: We were basically just glorified home-brew setup. So it was a very difficult challenge in that era to get both the consumers to appreciate beer in a different way, to get the retailers, the grocery stores and restaurants and bars, to look at these little companies that didn’t have any advertising or marketing dollars, didn’t really have a major production facility, didn’t have an audience because people weren’t used to drinking the dark and hoppy and differentiated beer. So we had to build the marketplace as well as get support from the distributors and retailers.

Walter Isaacson: But before he could even build the market, Ken Grossman had to build a brewery. Back in 1978, there was nowhere in America to buy small-scale brewing equipment. All of the machinery was for large commercial brewers. So he had to improvise.

Ken Grossman: The small dairy industry was sort of in the same place as the small brewing industry. A lot of small dairies were going out of business across the country. And then there were some small, soft drink bottlers that were also being put out of business by large centralized, more efficient bottling plants. So there was bottle washers and bottle fillers that were designed for soft drinks. And some of them did have the ability to cross over to fill beer. And early pioneers pretty much just would go out and find these tanks pipe and make them suitable for brewing,

Walter Isaacson: From a mishmash of dairy tanks, soft drink bottlers and other derelict equipment, Grossman built the first version of what would eventually become one of America’s largest independent craft breweries. He named his brewery after the mountains he loved, Sierra Nevada

Walter Isaacson: But what made Grossman’s beer special was not the homemade equipment or the rebellious attitude. It was the recipe, specifically it was the hops, those aromatic botanicals that give beer its bitter character and earthy aromas.

Ken Grossman: At that point in US brewing history, most all beers were of one style. They were the Light Lager style. So fairly low in hop character, fairly low in malt character, slightly sweet, not very bitter.

Walter Isaacson: Realizing that he needed to stand out from the landscape of lagers, Grossman started to play around with hops. He tried different varieties and added them to the mash in different quantities. The result was a twist on an ancient recipe, a hardy ale brewed with a heavy dose of hops for a bold flavor. It was called the Pale Ale and it was the founding brew of the craft beer revolution.

Ken Grossman: There’s just a lot of unique aromatic components at a hop. There’s literally hundreds of compounds that make up the aroma profile. We rightfully realized that if we were going to sort of stand out in the crowd, we had to do something that was distinctively different. And our pale ale was pretty bold. And at the time considered very hoppy.

Walter Isaacson: Today, 40 years later, Sierra Nevada is America’s seventh largest beer producer, producing more than one million barrels a year. It was the beer that changed America forever.

Walter Isaacson: Pioneers like Ken Grossman had a profound effect on the next generation of American brewers. Once more hoppy brews like the pale ale caught on, other brewers came forward to test their ingenuity against this whole new class of beer. One of them even found the secret to perfectly bold beer from an old children’s game in a Salvation Army store.

Sam Calagione: Hello, my name is Sam Calagione, and I’m the brewer and founder of Dogfish Head.

Walter Isaacson: In the beach side town of Rehoboth, Delaware, Sam Calagione has been brewing since the mid-1990s and he credits brewers like Ken Grossman for prying open the market with a hop forward vision.

Sam Calagione: Those first generation American craft breweries that created this renaissance of good beer in America were brewing beautiful local, fresh beers, but they had a one grade similarity that I recognized as I tried to find my own unique path into the brewing industry.

Walter Isaacson: That path, Calagione discovered, lay in the most off-centered beer imaginable, the India Pale Ale or the IPA. Originally, IPAs were developed in 18th century England. Brewers found that barrels of ale could survive the long journey to India if they added heavy amounts of hops to the mash. Hops are a natural preservative so the ale wouldn’t spoil after months at sea. But as Ken Grossman and others rediscovered, hops were also the key to unlocking crisp earthy flavors in beer.

Sam Calagione: And traditionally the way hops are added in beer is when the beer is boiling pre-fermentation, it’s sort of like the chef’s stew pot or soup pot. And when the soup is boiling, you add your spices. And in the case of brewing beer, the spice that you add is hops.

Walter Isaacson: The age-old method of brewing IPAs call for adding hops twice during the brewing process. First at the beginning of the boil to add bitterness, and then at the end to add the fragrant aromas of citrus, pie and other flavors found in hops. Calagione observed that by limiting the infusion of hops to these two steps in the process, the potential boldness of the beer was limited as well. Then one morning in 1999, as he sat in his brewery tracking his latest batch of ale, Calagione flipped on the TV to a cooking show and a flash of inspiration suddenly hit him.

Sam Calagione: And the chef was basically talking about how, if he added tiny pinches of fresh cracked pepper, the entire length of the time that he was simmering what he was making, it would weave the flavors of that pepper into the dish with more complexity and nuances than if he added the same volume of pepper all at once. And that got me thinking, huh? Maybe I can apply that concept to brewing. And instead of the tradition of one big addition of hops at the beginning, and one at the end, I can add little pinches of hops the entire time, the beer boiled,

Walter Isaacson: Unfortunately for Calagione, the technology of brewing that existed at the time only accommodated the traditional two-step process. He’d have to get creative in order to realize his vision.

Sam Calagione: You know, at first I was like, all right, well, I guess I could take one hot pellet and as quickly as possible, take a hot pellet every second and add it to the boiling beer, but that would be extremely challenging. And so I remembered that I was at this Salvation Army store the week earlier, and I remembered seeing a vibrating football game. And I thought, okay, maybe if I can rig that thing up and MacGyver it with a bucket and some duct tape and two by fours on a ladder that can do the dirty work for me and vibrate the pelletized hops into the beer

Walter Isaacson: On top of his kettle of boiling beer, Calagione filled a five-gallon bucket with hot pallets and he drove a few holes in the bottom and taped it to the electric football game. Finally, he rigged the apparatus at an angle and flip the switch. As the game vibrated, the little pellets trickled out of the bucket, one by one and fell into the mash. And the result was the first batch of what is now Dogfish Head’s most legendary brew, the 90 Minute IPA.

Walter Isaacson: It was the birth of a technology now known as continual hopping and the birth of a new American obsession with bold hop forward beers. The IPA has become the flag-bearer of what is now a $22 billion craft beer industry. The impact of Calagione’s creation has not gone unnoticed. Last year, The Smithsonian Institution called and asked if they could have the original football game for their museum’s collection.

Sam Calagione: So that really warms our hearts, not just as co-workers at Dogfish, but as proud members of the craft brewing community, because we are a collective of innovative entrepreneurs that I think really embody the everlasting spirit of American ingenuity and that kind of position of being David’s up against Goliath, but figuring out our versions of meaningful little slingshots that we can use to take on our adversaries and stand out in a competitive industry, dominated by giants.

Walter Isaacson: So slingshots can come in many different forms. Sometimes it’s a vibrating football game, and other times it’s an algorithm

Walter Isaacson: Since the time of Michael Combrune and the Industrial Revolution, some of the most important innovators in brewing have passionate outsiders. They are true beer rebels and their cause is adapting technology to improve the quality and flavor of beer. Today, more than ever, beer drinkers want a consistent, refreshing product that satisfies their particular thirst. But is there a way for technology to give beer drinkers the ability to join the revolution themselves? It’s a question Hew Leith and his partners asked when they founded their brewery, a brewery they named IntelligentX.

Hew Leith: For hundreds of years, we’ve seen brewers brew their beers and they want feedback from their customers about how they view those beers, did they enjoy them? And so traditionally what’s happened is the brewers have gone into a local bar and they’ve seen people drinking their beers and they’ve walked up to them and they said, “What did you think about that particular glass of beer that you’ve just drunk?”

Walter Isaacson: Like a lot of modern startups, IntelligentX began with a simple idea, how can technology bring consumers closer to the products they love? The answer for Leith is artificial intelligence.

Hew Leith: Everyone loves beer. Everyone loves AI at the moment. And why don’t those two things come together where we can use machine learning to self-improve a physical product based on customer feedback? So fundamentally what IntelligentX is all about is listening to customers and taking action on their feedback.

Walter Isaacson: They developed a Facebook Messenger bot, which they used to survey beer drinkers, and the types of beer they enjoy. The AI aggregates the data, analyzes it and produces a set of recommendations about how the beer should evolve. But their AI doesn’t make the beer, brewing remains a distinctly human craft. The IntelligentX brewmaster takes the analysis performed by the algorithm and decides how to adapt the recipe,

Hew Leith: For our golden ale, the algorithm thought it would be quite interesting to try and see if we had a grapefruit, that that particular recipe, would it work. Wouldn’t it work? The human brewer looked at it, assessed the recipe to see if it was generally in line with what beer should be doing and then brewed it. And the feedback we got was extremely positive. They loved it. And so the algorithm learnt that putting grapefruit in beer was a good thing,

Walter Isaacson: Much like the way Netflix’s algorithm analyzes your past experience to recommend your next film, Intelligent X can take your preferences and those of others like you to recommend your next drink. It’s all about responding to the evolution of taste in the short time it takes to brew a single batch of beer.

Hew Leith: And what we love about it is the fact that it could have got it wrong, but that would have been good too. Then the system would have learned that that was something and it shouldn’t do. And really this whole thing is about experimentation.

Walter Isaacson: Even after many generations of ales and lagers, IntelligentX continues to evolve because our thirst for beer evolves too. From Michael Combrune’s beer laboratory to Hew Leith’s algorithm, the technological evolution of beer has been squarely focused on one ultimate outcome, a tastier more consistent beer in your hand. So whether you’ve got a London Porter in your hand, a crisp Drummond lager or a frothy American IPA, raise your glass to the great trailblazers of brewing as a little revolution in every pipe.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. I’d love to hear what you think of the show. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to today’s episode. Thanks for listening.