Beer class redux

Week two: Alchemy and alcohol


This semester, Kings College is offering a course titled "Brewing Science: The History, Culture and Science of Beer," taught by professor Gordon Mcouat, an instructor in King's History of Science and Technology program.

I managed to get myself enrolled in the class, and so will be posting regular updates on its progress.

This week, Dr. Kyle Fraser gave a guest lecture to the class (what does Mcouat actually do over at Kings?). Fraser teaches the history of alchemy at King’s, which is a fascinating subject all its own, but it certainly didn’t hurt that Fraser’s enthusiasm is infectious.

Regardless, it turns out that this “techne” business the Greeks were on about (see Week One) is pretty important. I won’t pretend to understand it, but Fraser’s point was that craft technology---and brewing and distilling in particular---was central to the development of modern science, and alchemy was the vehicle for this knowledge.

Aristotle, said Fraser, insisted that artisans do not create anything anew---they aren’t gods---but merely ape what occurs in the natural world. “In general techne either imitates the works of nature or completes that which nature is unable to bring to completion,” he wrote, that latter part giving him a loophole you could drive a Mack truck through, but still.

So, basically, artisans were looked down on, as not really having the big brain power the intellectuals so clearly possessed. There was one big exception, though: medicine. Medicine, in the medieval view, could actually transform nature. Medicine, therefore, was the only craft that was brought into the academies, and taken seriously by the intellectuals.

Fraser explained how the medieval theoretical understanding of medicine mirrored the understanding of the cosmos. The universe, in their view, was made of four elements (earth, water, air and fire) and the body was composed of four corresponding humours (phlem, black bile, white bile and blood.)

Everything, they thought, was a mixture of the four basic fundamental essences. The alchemists sought to transform metals by bringing them down to their “prime metal,” then reconstituting those fundamental substances into other metals. The way they saw it, they were recreating the natural processes---stuff that was going on down in the earth over a very long time---in their cauldrons, very quickly.

Likewise, medicine sought to cure the body by restoring a proper balance of the four humours.

Katie, the grad student who seems to do most of the real work in this class, popped in with a technical explanation of how that actually happens. Nowadays medicine is supposed to stay in the body and work corporately owned and marketed magic, your body absorbing more and more and becoming addicted to it at ever-increasing prices, but medieval medical providers saw things differently: the various medicines were meant to glean onto one of the humours and expel some of it, thereby bring the whole out-of-whack system back into balance. The more the medicine didn’t stay in the system, the better it was working. To see if the thing worked as designed, the medievals continuously checked stool and urine samples for signs of the medicine, thereby inventing the drug testing industry.

What does this have to do with brewing? I haven’t a clue.

It does, however, have a lot to do with distilling, which is the art of evaporating off and condensing extracts from (usually) plant material. The medicine people were making medicines through distilling, and the alchemists were following along closely. Fraser gave a pretty detailed history of distilling, and yes, we’re confusing brewing and distilling here, but college is about nothing, if not confusing your alcohol.

Actually, though, for most of its history distilling had nothing to do with alcohol. The oldest still we know about was built by the Mesopotamians, around 3500 B.C., and was probably used to make perfume or herbal medicine. A few thousand years later, in 300 B.C., a Greek fellow named Zosimos explained the distilling process, and credited a Jewish female alchemist named Maria for inventing the thing. Maria, said Fraser, pops up in much of the alchemist literature for the next 2000 years.

Even though all this distilling was going on, alcohol itself wasn’t discovered (as opposed to being drunk, through the brewing process) until around 1000 A.D. That’s because it’s pretty hard to make alcohol---you have to have very good control of temperature, and it took that long for the technology to catch up.

A lot of the King’s students bring laptops to class, and use them to type in notes and such---there’s a constant clicking noise as their fingers run across the keyboards, which must surely drive the profs nuts. But as the college provides wireless on campus, the students are also popping in and out of Facebook and other, er, diversionary web sites betwixt typing notes. You know, multi-tasking.

I bring this up only because it was at precisely this moment in the lecture that I was trying to surreptitiously read the email the guy in the row ahead of me was sending to his girlfriend (things have really changed since I was in college, let me tell you), so I kinda missed exactly how Fraser segued to his next point, but I’m sure it was way cool, however it was.

By the time I was paying attention again, Fraser was talking about how in the 12th century the alchemists were playing around with mineral acids and alcohol, and were starting to draw some pretty wild conclusions. Because alcohol is one of those things you get through the distillation process and because it has some odd properties--- “hot, and yet cold, a liquid that is dry”--- they figured that it was itself a prime element.

The alchemists went on to construct a cosmic order where the stars emitted a “ether,” a basic spiritual essence, that fell to earth and became the building block for the four prime elements here. “And it was Alcohol,” said Fraser, “that was the manifestation of celestial ether.”

There was a bunch of stuff that came after this, about how the alchemists' world view was held by all those guys who later dreamed up modern science--- even Newton himself, the supposed godfather of a billiard-ball universe. But I didn’t take very good notes, and none of that matters anyway, because we’ve hit on the heart of the lecture already: alcohol is godly, the very essence of the cosmos and the foundation to all worthy things on earth.

Is this a great class or what?

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