Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

March 20, 2008

Beer Diary:

Death And Rebirth In A World Of Darkness

Easter, pagans, Top Gun, yeast, and other strangeness on the vernal equinox.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
I guess I’m kind of fascinated with the fact that many aspects of Christianity are derived from ancient pagan rituals probably tens of thousands of years old. I touched on this around Christmas and the winter solstice, and it’s no surprise that the most important holiday in the Christian world, religously speaking, at least, in which believers mourn the death of Christ on Good Friday and celebrate his rising from the dead on Easter Sunday—I’m talking about Easter—also has pagan roots.

Even so, the “passion” of Easter, admittedly, is a pretty great story, which is probably one of the many reasons why Christianity is one of the world’s most popular religions. It’s kind of like Top Gun, without all the highly charged homoeroticism. The hero (Maverick/Jesus) faces his arch rival in a final showdown (Iceman/Pontius Pilate) but—dramatically shocking—loses (doesn’t get top gun honors/is crucified). But just when you thought all was lost, he comes back from oblivion to save the day (his wingman from the Russians/all of humanity from eternal damnation). The story ends with our hero justly remunerated for his great deeds (man-hugs Iceman/ascends bodily into heaven). I mean, come on! What an irresistable story!

Yes, pretty powerful stuff, but it isn’t a coincidence that Easter is celebrated in the spring, a period of similar dramatic rebirth in nature. Virtually every civilization around the world and throughout history had a spring rebirth and fertility festival, observed around May 1st—May Day—or around the vernal equinox. Easter is no different. It is always observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Since the equinox is on March 20th this year, and there’s a full moon the 21st, Easter is, as you probably know, on March 23rd. How much more pagan can you get?

Normally I’d talk about what beers to drink during this most holy and pagan of holidays (Capital’s Maibock and Three Floyds’ Rabid Rabbit saison come first to mind) but it’s this death and rebirth thing that’s got my interest, because it makes me think of not just beer, but one of the key ingredients in beer: yeast.

Not a lot of people know this, but yeast is a fungus. Just that fact alone is remarkable, because fungi are some weird cats. They’re not animals and they’re not plants. They form their own kingdom. Hence they don’t experience the same lifecycle plants and animals do, and they don’t depend directly on sunlight unlike nearly all other non-microbial life forms. Plus, their main function within nature is to feed off the dead: recycling decomposing organic matter and recycling it for plants and animals to eat. So they sit in this twilight zone between the living and the dead, kind of like vampires or Steve Gutenberg. Creepy.

And among fungus, yeast form their own group. They’re microbial and they reproduce differently than most fungus, by budding instead of sending out spores. (And, no, contrary to popular belief, the yeast aren’t having sex in the fermenter while making beer. They reproduce asexually, so, technically, they’re masturbating.) Plus, yeast are probably the oldest domesticated organism on the planet. Pretty neat, huh?

But we don’t think a whole Hell of a lot about the yeast when we’re drinking craft beer. A lot of us don’t realize that the banana-and-clove flavor in a well made hefeweizen or the spicy phenolic character in an authentic Belgian are solely from the yeast. As one of the key ingredients in beer, yeast sits in the shadows of hops and malt. Only water gets shorter shrift. But if you pay close attention while drinking your craft brew, you can sometimes discern some yeast flavors, aside from the big ones mentioned above (and, of course, the distinct sourness of Brettanomyces). Some yeast are bred specifically not to impart any flavors—producing “clean” flavors, in other words—but others create flavors ranging from plums to walnuts, bubblegum to bread. These alcoholic compounds the yeast create are incredibly complex. It’s no wonder our ancestors were so mystified by the power of these invisible, seemingly magical organisms.

Nowhere is this magic more evident than when you drink home brew, mainly because quite a bit of the yeast end up in the bottle, and hence your glass. But the idea of death and rebirth takes on a new twist when you talk home brewing and yeast. At the end of the fermentation cycle, after all the sugars have been converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide, the yeast sink to the bottom of the vessel in a gray, pasty cake. You’d assume they were dead, having starved to death in the darkness of the fermenter. But no. Dump a fresh batch of wort onto that yeast cake, then duck. Over the course of the next day or two, you will see some of the most violent fermentations of your life, as the yeast come back, seemingly from the dead, to save the day.

At least in beer terms …

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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