Blitzed, Smashed and Drunk: Better Drinking Through Chemistry

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Happy Tuesday after the 4th of July to everyone! I hope you all had a good long weekend and were able to drink some good beer. I went 10 for 10 on the BSD Top 10 Americana Beers over the long weekend and am proud of it. I did some grilling and cooking and it got me to thinking. As I grilled up a nice T-Bone, I sat there thinking about what was going on when that steak was exposed to heat and how it grilled up, cooked itself radiantly and the fat added to the flavors. When paired with the glass of Angel's Envy I was drinking, I was able to appreciate the subtleties of what I was enjoying. This of course, got the gears turning; it got me thinking about Walter White and his alter ego Heisenberg and the damage that he and Jesse Pinkman did by using Organic Chemistry to their benefit.

And then it hit me... All of the alcohol we drink is nothing more than applied Organic Chemistry. The sweet taste of that Budweiser on a cold day is a bunch of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. When you look at the nuts and bolts of what's in beer, it's not that different from what's in butter, vinegar, duck fat, artificial sweeteners and all sorts of wonderful flavors we get from spices. What we have here is Organic Chemistry working on our behalf. Unlike Walter White, Jessie Pinkman, Tuco Salamanca and Gus Fring, we're not using Organic Chemistry to rule the world... we're just using it to get a little drunk.

You wouldn't expect the us here at Blitzed, Smashed and Drunk to know much about Chemistry, particularly one of the hardest, and most feared branches to study in College, but you'd be wrong. At the end of the day, Organic Chemistry is nothing more than the study of what we can do with Organic Compounds, all of which contain Carbon. Booze contains carbon. Soap contains carbon. Carbohydrates, such as sugar, contain carbon. Protein contains carbon. Plastic contains carbon. All of them are considered Organic Compounds. While making booze has been around for much longer than what we knew what Organic Chemistry is... it just so happens that distilling, brewing and vinting can all be explained because of Organic Chemistry, so to better talk the product, it's nice to understand a little bit of where it comes from and how it's made.

Just a word of warning here, this will be the most "Science Filled" discussion of alcohol, and probably the only one given how important fermentation is to drinking. It may get a little bit confusing and I will do my best to answer questions to help clarify.

Before we go any further, let's take a moment to review some absolutely basic chemistry. This is an example of a chemical equation: 2H2 + O2 Yields 2H2O. In English, 2 molecules of Hydrogen gas combined with 1 molecule of Oxygen gas will combined to form 2 molecules of Water. On the left side, we have our reactants and on the right side we have our products. What you have on the left side of the equation must equal what you have on the right side of the equation. If we had 3H2 instead of 2H2, the equation would balance as follows: 2H2 + O2 Yields 2H2O + H2. This is because matter cannot be created or destroyed, so everything needs to balance out. It's important to remember. The second bit of basic chemistry we need to know is that Fermentation, the process by which the alcohol we drink is made is a decomposition reaction. Basically, we start with a reactant, and, when in the presence of a catalyst, yeast as in the case of brewing, distilling and vinting alcohol, we are left with products derived from the original reactant. So what we start with will, net net, equal what we end with.

After reviewing our two basic rules of chemistry (there are more, but really... do you want to get a Chem Lecture from me?) to get the alcohol we love to drink, it's a shocker we haven't yet discussed alcohol at all. There are hundreds of different Alcohols that can be made. When I say hundreds, I mean we're talking From Dusk til Dawn levels of number of alcohols there are. There's more than enough that I'm sure Cheech Marin could do a hell of a job reading them all off. There's Methanol, Ethanol, Isopropyl Alcohol, Butyl Alcohol, Amyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Ethylene Glycol, Propylene Glycol, Glycerol, Xylitol, Sorbitol, Allyl Alcohol, Geraniol, and Menthol. Yup, 2-(2-Propyl)-5-Methyl-Cycloheane-1-ol, or Menthol as it's more commonly known, is an alcohol. Menthol is found in cigarettes. Isopropyl Alcohol is the fancy way of saying rubbing alcohol. Glycerol is in everything including fats, oils, soap, drugs, and explosives. Xylitol and Sorbitol are fall into a group of artificial sweeteners called Sugar Alcohols. Because there are so many types of Alcohol, when talking about the Alcohol we imbibe, I'll refer to it as either EtOH or by one of the various synonyms out there for it. The only chemical formula for alcohol we need to know is that EtOH's chemical formula is C2H5OH.

When it comes to making EtOH, we need to start with a product we can convert to C2H5OH. The process that alcoholics around the world have been doing since the dawn of man, fermentation, always began with sugar. Sugar, another organic compound, is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, the same elements that form EtOH. It doesn't matter whether you start with malted barley, grape juice and must, honey, sugarcane or agave, in the presence of yeast, anything that is meant to ferment will break down into glucose and fructose. Both glucose and fructose have the chemical formula C6H12O6. EtOH is C2H5OH. Start to see a pattern here? What you start with cannot be destroyed, so you end up using everything in your sugar to create your EtOH. However, it doesn't matter what way you slice it, sugar cannot break down into just pure EtOH through decomposition. Fermentation also produces carbon dioxide, balancing out our equation. At the end of the day, we are left with 1 Molecule Sugar (C6H12O6), in the presence of Yeast, Yields 2 Molecules of EtOH (C2H5OH) + 2 Molecules of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Now here is where it gets interesting. If we trust the chemical formula as is, we would have tasteless, bland EtOH; It just so happens that the brewing process where things get really interesting. Now, just adding yeast doesn't mean you have EtOH all of a sudden. Yeast is a single celled fungus and once it's activated, it is able to takes sugar and start breaking it down for lack of a better explanation. Put the sugar and yeast in a container with little to no oxygen and the yeast, under anaerobic conditions, works its magic converting the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Fermentation doesn't just create alcohol. It can create other byproducts; the list is quite large really. Depending on the ingredients used, the quality of the water and how the EtOH is stored or what it happens to be fermented in, what is being made, and other determining factors, we don't just have EtOH and Carbon Dioxide; we end up with phenols, esters, aldehydes, acids, ketones, amines, amides, acetals, sulfides, and alcohols hidden in our EtOH without necessarily knowing it. Those tannins we love in red wine are produced by phenols and those banana flavors found in a classic Bavarian Hefeweizen are produced by esters. By adding hops to beer, the acids present in hops are drawn into the liquid to be fermented and the get converted into other compounds during fermentation. There are times in distilling where other alcohols are produced as a byproduct of distilling; there are times we want other alcohols like amyl alcohol for the flavor it can provide, and there are times when we want none of it because it will destroy the booze. These "other alcohols" are more commonly referred to as Fusel Alcohol or Fusel Oil. All of these byproducts are called Congeners, and they will definitely be popping up again.

So, to give a brief summary, since I'm sure things got a little hazy, fermentation is the most famous form of Organic Chemistry. The reason why it falls under Organic Chemistry is because we are dealing with Organic Compounds whose ingredients are made out of carbon. There are a ton of different types of Alcohols out there, but there is only one we can drink - Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol, Alcohol, Pure Alcohol or EtOH). The process of creating drinkable ethyl alcohol is called fermentation. Fermentation is when take the most basic carbohydrate there is, sugar, add yeast and put the mixture in a chamber without oxygen and you will get EtOH and Carbon Dioxide. When making various types of EtOH, you also get byproducts called Congeners. These byproducts help give the alcohol we drink the flavor we have come to expect. Some Congeners are good and others are bad.

Either way, they are in what we drink and we should at least learn to appreciate the basics behind what we drink.
And don't worry... things will make a lot more sense once Blitzed, Smashed and Drunk starts talking about how our favorite beverages are made. Understanding fermentation is only the first step on the path to being a modern drinker.

Comments (5)

Jul 8, 2014

What did I just read?

Jul 8, 2014

A whole lot about Chemistry, Fermentation and Alcohol. There's a whole lot of science behind actually making alcohol. Everything from the ingredients you use to the yeast you choose to how you choose to measure your Alcohol Content matters. And it all starts with Fermentation. I realize it's a little disjoint as it's hard to distill a whole lot of chemistry into something easy to follow, but the basic foundation is key to everything.

Jul 8, 2014

You should definitely take a trip around the different distilleries in Scotland. Or hell just jump on a plane to Portland, there is a shit ton of micro breweries and pubs. Very cool.

Jul 8, 2014

This stuff took up about a 1/5th of my chemistry textbook, good effort getting it into a few paragraphs haha.

I always found it really interesting, particularly making our own alcohols and esters to combine

Jul 9, 2014
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