Even if Benjamin Franklin never actually said it, beer may indeed be proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. But the big guy upstairs has still needed some inventions from us mere mortals. No, I’m not talking about the beer helmet or the koozie—though perhaps I should—and I’m certainly not referring to any macrobrewery’s latest attempt at Vortexian super-chilled wide-mouth titanium bottle technology.
Instead, the following are inventions that truly advanced the beer industry forward to the present. To 2015. To this weekend even, where hundreds of thousands of beer guzzlers—and 750 breweries—will gather in a 2.2 million-square-foot convention center in Denver to drink themselves silly at the Great American Beer Festival. All thanks to many of these inventions below.
Why it matters: Sours are perhaps the hottest beer craze at the moment—see last weekend’s worldwide Cantillon “Zwanze Day” if you don’t believe me—but creating them is hardly a new thing. In fact, brewers have been using sour beer-brewing “koelschips” since perhaps the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, we have no one specifically to credit with this device that consists of a simple metal pan that’s long—not wide—and only a foot or so deep. Kept uncovered, the large surface area allows the hot wort to cool quicker. More importantly, wild yeasts and bacteria in the air can enter the wort, both helping it spontaneously ferment and giving it those complex, funky flavors. This would lead to the lambic and gueuze styles that Brussels-area Belgians would become famous for. The first filed patent for a “coolship” in America came centuries later, in 1938, and, nowadays, many American breweries (like Allagash, Russian River, de Garde, and Jester King) are using this old-world method—but new-world spelling—to produce world-class beer. (Photo: Flickr/Allagash Brewing)
Why it matters: You wouldn’t think a tiny device looking somewhat like a thermometer would critically change what goes into our glass, but such was the case for this invention from Benjamin Martin. The English chemist wanted to measure the density and specific gravity of certain alcohols without having to use the favored guesstimation method of the time: sticking his hand in the wort to see how sticky it was. Instead, he relied on buoyancy, modifying a hydrometer to include a lead-weighted glass bulb with a calibrated stem rising from the top. Now a beer’s sugar levels could be determined, with denser (more sugary) liquids causing the bulb to float higher. OK, but why does all this nerdy science matter? Because, armed with this saccharometer, brewers for the first time could completely manipulate the color, flavor, and alcoholic strength of the beers they produced. (Photo: Wikicommons)
Drum Malt Roaster
Why it matters: While it’s not always a giveaway, the actual color of a beer can often inform us as to what the beer might taste like. Before British engineer Daniel Wheeler got involved, the vast majority of beers would have been a muted brown color (assuming unscrupulous brewmasters hadn’t added any illegal colorants). And the beer would have tasted somewhat charred and unpleasantly smoky. Wheeler’s invention of a revolving metal drum—inspired by coffee roasting—allowed malt to not only now roast uniformly, but likewise not come into contact with dirty coal smoke as had previously been the case. Now brewers, also using that saccharometer, could fully control the final color and flavor of their malts. This led to a variety of new styles springing up, most noticeably those great, dark and roasty porters and stouts that would soon take over Europe. (Photo: maltspecialists.com)
Burton Union System
Why it matters: Sorry, geeks: the IPA wasn’t invented in San Diego or Portland, or even Vermont. It started in small English towns like Burton-upon-Trent, which had a vigorous beer scene in the 1700s and 1800s. But more significantly for the town, and this piece, is its invention of the Burton Union. This fermentation system was a row of wooden casks connected to a trough via a series of pipes which would recirculate the beer throughout them. The purpose was to allow excess yeast foam to be expelled from the casks, one-of-a-kind yeast strains to then form, and ultimately produce a bright and crisp ale—a unique flavor for its time. While the system has fallen out of popularity as fermentation methods changed, Firestone Walker still has a system in their brewhouse through which they produce their flagship DBA, while Dogfish Head has an oak-aged IPA lovingly called Burton Baton. (Photo: cervejarte.org)
Adolphus Busch’s Refrigerated Railcars
Why it matters: A German immigrant who had arrived in St. Louis just a decade or so earlier, Adolphus Busch by the 1870s was literally becoming the area’s “king of beers.” But how to expand his brewery’s footprint and get his “Not How Cheap but How Good” offerings to other parts of the country? In 1876 Busch commissioned five double-walled and refrigerated railcars. Prior to Busch, a “refrigerated” railcar simply meant one packed with blocks of rapidly melting ice, which rotted the boxcar’s wooden floors. In Busch’s cars, however, the ice and other coolants (like ammonia) were stored in special tubing. Refrigeration was now stronger and longer-lasting for extended trips to lucrative, far-away markets. By 1888 Busch had a fleet over 850 refrigerated railcars and Budweiser had become a dominant national brand—and made Busch a very rich man. (Photo: Wikicommons)
Why it matters: A glass bottle seems so obvious to not even merit being mentioned. But believe it not, for the longest time beer was served in such vessels as amphorae, buckets, and leather sacks, sometimes with a straw even. Glass-blowing began in Roman times and rudimentary wine bottles would have begun springing up around then. But it took the Industrial Revolution and, most importantly, Michael Joseph Owen’s invention of the world’s first automated glass bottling machine to turn beer into the widespread everyman beverage that would dominate the 20th century and on. Owen’s invention also suddenly necessitated lots of dudes having a bottle opener keychain well past the age they probably should. (Guilty.) (Photo: betterbeerblog.com)
The Beer Can
Why it matters: Beer bottles are great, except for one thing: you can’t shotgun them. OK, two things: bottles break, especially, say, if they’re being subjected to bumpy, early-1900s rail and road travel. Luckily, once Prohibition ended, light, sturdy, and cheap cans hit the scene courtesy of New York’s American Can Co. This tin can company was able to develop a “keg-lined” steel container with a sturdy seal and partnered with Newark’s Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. for initial test batches. In 1935 cans of Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale were released to test markets (alongside special openers designed to punch a hole in the lid). Canned beer was an instant sensation, Krueger’s sales skyrocketed, and by year’s end thirty-seven breweries were also canning. And, yes, I’m also guessing almost immediately there were fat guys in the Giants parking lot shot-gunning them. (Of note, aluminum cans, even cheaper and lighter, were introduced in 1958.) (Photo: rustycans.com)
Why it matters: Joseph L. Owades, a biochemist for Brooklyn’s Rheingold Breweries, had noticed a troubling trend: by the late-’60s people had quit drinking beer, thinking it would make them fat. He would need to invent something, specifically an isolated enzyme that could break down a malt’s starches, and thus leave behind fewer carbohydrates. Even with his new invention, though, Owades’s first light beer, Gablinger’s Diet Beer, massively flopped. That is until he sold his enzyme and light beer recipe to Chicago’s Meister Brau, which was eventually acquired by Miller Brewing Company. By the 1970s, Miller Lite was a massive hit. (A decade or so later, Owades would teach his protege Jim Koch—who would eventually teach me—how to drink all night and never get drunk.) (Photo: taverntrove.com)
Why it matters: Sometimes our best inventions are just clever re-purposings of something else. Coca-Cola going from a treatment for morphine addiction to a delicious drink. Donald Trump turning his reality show into a presidential campaign. Greg Hall looking at an empty barrel of Jim Beam and thinking, “Hmmm…I wonder what would happen if I filled it with beer?” At the time, Hall was the brewmaster at Goose Island Brewing Co. which, believe it or not, was then just a small, local brewpub. He wanted to brew something special to celebrate his spot’s 1000th batch. His decision to fill that bourbon barrel with a rich stout, which in turn soaked up some of the barrel’s bourbon and wood notes, not only created a completely new style of beer, but completely changed several industries. Nearly twenty-five years later, barrel-aged beers are the most desirable beers on planet earth. And, whereas previously, bourbon distilleries couldn’t give away these seemingly useless empty barrels, now they’ve become extremely coveted, even necessitating barrel brokers. (Photo: boozemuse.com)
Dogfish Head’s Sir Hops-A-Lot
What it is: Continuous hopping
When it was invented: 2001
Why it matters: Sam Calagione had an idea—having met the man I can tell you, Sam Calagione always has an idea—but this one was vital. Instead of adding hops only three times to the boil—for bitterness, flavoring, and aroma—he wondered what would happen if he continuously added them? There was no machine to do such a thing, and he certainly didn’t want to stand over a tank dropping hops for ninety straight minutes, so instead he jury-rigged an electric football game. The vibration of the toy caused the hops to slowly and continuously enter the boil. The resulting beer, fittingly named 90 Minute IPA, was revolutionary for the time. As one of the world’s first ever uber-hopped ales, it helped begin a double IPA arms race which continues to this day. Nowadays, Dogfish Head has a custom-built machine, “Sir Hops-A-Lot,” to produce beers like 60 Minute IPA, 90 Minute IPA, and 120 Minute IPA. (Also in the hopping realm, Dogfish Head has invented the “Me So Hoppy” dry-hopping machine as well as Randall the Enamel Animal.)
Sierra Nevada’s Distilled Hop Oil
Why it matters: It would seem like there’s not much left to invent in the brewing world. Men like Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman, however, would say, “WRONG!” A couple years back he decided to find a solution to a nagging problem: hops are only fresh (or “wet”) for a 6- to 8-week harvesting window every year. Thus, the vast majority of hops have to be dried in order to give breweries a supply for the other ten months of the year. Grossman wondered if he could take wet hops and steam distill their crucial oils into a vapor, which could then be turned into a highly-concentrated hops oil. Having captured this pure hops essence, earlier this year came the release of Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter—the world’s first year-round fresh hopped beer made from that distilled hop oil. Has this invention and resulting beer “changed brewing history?” Perhaps not yet, but, as a huge fan of wet-hopped beer, I think it just might. (Photo: beermenus.com)
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide, The Guide for a Single Man, and The Guide for a Single Woman.