Cheers to Science, and Beer, and Using Science to Justify Your Beer-Drinking

I went to a cool event last night at the Bell House in Gowanus as part of the World Science Festival, and took away many lessons from it, only some of which involve science. The event was called Cheers to Science: A Drinkable Feast of Beer, Biotechnology, and Archaeology, and it was one of those zeitgeisty situations where everything that’s having a moment right now came together in one place, and there was beer. The event featured Sam Calagione, the weird-beer-loving founder of Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware, and biomolecular archeologist Patrick E. McGovern, a brainy science guy who helps Calagione recreate ancient beers like Dogfish Head Ta Henket, the beer the pyramid builders drank. I’ve already said enough, you can see that this collaboration is smart as hell. Not only do you get to drink beer while you learn about history and science, you have to drink beer to learn about history and science. Brilliant. But there’s more. 

Everything’s a TED Talk These Days

Calagione and McGovern stood on stage, pint glasses in hand, wireless microphones attached to their heads, discussing the smart things they do. Those things involve traveling the world looking for evidence of ancient drinking rituals, digging up old cups and jugs, and scraping them for whatever residue might be left to tell them about the booze (usually beer, or some beer/wine hybrid) that was in them. Then the two get together at Calagione’s brewery and do their very best to recreate those drinks. The ease of their rapport, the accessible-yet-high-minded topics they discussed, and their infectious enthusiasm reminded me of Steve Jobs on stage debuting the first iPhone, or A.J. Jacobs talking about what it really takes to be healthy in his TED Talk. You get smarter just being in the room, and you’re never bored. (Sample exchange–McGovern: "Which came first, bread or beer? If you had your choice, what would it be?" Calagione: "Not bread.") 

Science is Hot

 From Jesse screaming "Science!" in Breaking Bad to Reddit’s worship of Tesla and other bleeding-edge companies, it’s never been cooler to be into science. If you’re involved in science–in smashing through ignorance, following the scientific method, and advancing human knowlege–you’re somewhat of a hero, at least to those who don’t bang the drum for Intelligent Design and close their ears and go lalala whenver a coherent argument gets in the way of their belief system. And the pro-science camp is going to be running things for the foreseeable future, saving the world from global warming, eliminating malaria, and finally getting around to those flying cars, so I’m right there with ’em, as long as they don’t get insufferably cocky.

The Rock Star Brewmaster Has Arrived

 Sam Calagione is a smart guy. He’s also young, well-spoken, and handsome. While I truly believe he’s a beer-brewer at heart, he’s clearly made the decision to become the public face of his company, and, in many ways, the craft-brewing industry. I think he’s as good an ambassador as any. And there’s a precedent for him to follow. There were no celebrity chefs before Wolfgang Puck came along and fed the press those great Austrian-inflected soundbites, and later got on TV and virtually took viewers into his restaurants. Now every chef is a celebrity chef. It’s practically required. Next came celebrity bartenders and mixologists (whatever the distinction may be) like Dale DeGroff. Celebrity brewers are ready for their moment. While not all of them will want to leave their brewing kettles to do the speaking circuit, the ones who do–like the Brooklyn Brewery‘s Garrett Oliver, Sam Adams’ Jim Koch, and Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman–will find a receptive audience, especially if they’re willing to drop some real beer knowledge instead of just shilling their own brands. 

The Rock Star Professor Is Back

Remember when Indiana Jones came along, and being an archeology or history professor was cool for a while, until people realized that sifting through ancient burial chambers was hot and sweaty work that probably wouldn’t get you rich, or laid? Well it’s time for a new era of rock star professors. McGovern certainly looks the part (he’s on the left in the photo, as if that needs pointing out), with his big bushy beard and rumpled trousers. And he’s hitched his wagon to the right star, adding scientific gravitas to Calagione’s beery experiments. Having a professor involved means that I’m not sitting there guzzling beer until my eyes water, or at least not just that. It means that I’m so into the pursuit of knowledge that I have to actually ingest it into my body and transport myself back to ancient China, or Egypt, or Italy.

I Actually Did Learn Some Stuff

The audience at the Bell House was several hundred strong, and, glancing around the room, I saw what I perceived as a mix of beer enthusiasts (call them geeks if you like, but I saw no pocket protectors), science enthusiasts who happen to like beer, and history buffs. And yes, there were women among them. The event itself involved tasting four different Dogfish Head beers that McGovern had helped create, paired with a few chunks of cheese from Murray’s. I learned that hops are a somewhat recent addition to beer, that the reinheitsgebot is bullshit, and that almost every government was helpful in their beer research except for the Italian government, which thinks wine is the only historically important beverage. (Get with the times, Italy. Beer rulez.) 

I learned more than that, but there are some lessons that you can only absorb through your belly, so pick up some of Dogfish Head’s ancient ales and get yourself educated, cool, and a little bit lifted. Learning is fun. 

[Related: BlackBook New York Guide; Listing for The Bell House; Old Beer: Dogfish Head Ta Henket is a Blast from 4,500 Years in the Past; Spiegelau Creates New IPA Glass, Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada Create New Beer to Fill It With; Rest in Peace, Brooklyn Monster Ale, and Cat; Today in Creative Beer Advertising: Heineken’s New TV Spot ‘The Voyage’; More by Victor Ozols; Follow Me on Twitter]

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