Friday, June 24, 2005

Friday night thoughts on booze
Archy, this site's patron cockroach was a fan of good drink now and then. Sadly, he lived at a bad time for a good drink. One of his most frequently quoted observations was that "Prohibition makes you want to cry into your beer, and then denies you the beer to cry into."

P.Z. Myers also thought Friday would be a good time to express some appreciation for the miracle of drink. He has a fascinating piece on the evolution of alcohol manufacture by yeast, explaining how it fits in with their other energy processing traits. Early in his post, after explaining how most organisms process sugars, he commented that yeast's peculiar metabolism \is not particularly efficient.
They have to burn a little extra energy to prepare acetaldehyde for the citric acid cycle..., which wouldn't be necessary if they used a 3-carbon intermediate as we do. So, one question is why they use a relatively inefficient method to carry out anaerobic metabolism.

My mind reeled at this thought (and I haven't been drinking, yet). Could this be the evidence that the Intelligent Design Creationists have been looking for? Think about it. These tiny yeasts have been plugging away, using a relatively inefficient method of processing sugars just so they could produce a chemical that is poisonous to most life forms, but that greatly improves the human condition. Benjamin Franklin was right when he wrote, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." God designed yeast just so we could have beer!

Or did he? Yeast appears to have been around and processing sugars in this way for about 80 million years. The drinkers (us) have only been around for one or two million, and colleges have only existed for a dozen centuries or so. That means the great majority of all alcohol produced on earth has gone to waste, undrunk and unappreciated. God, being a Protestant, would never have done anything so wasteful. Besides, as P.Z. goes on to tell us, alcohol produced some very clever advantages for yeast. Being poisonous, it chases away competitors in the sugar rich environment of soft fruits and yeast can reverse process the alcohol under certain circumstances, using it as a backup source of energy. That's a lot more clever than we humans are. Imagine if we could reprocess diesel exhaust and get a second round productive energy out of it.

Deep down in the comments on P.Z.'s piece, after a discussion of ketosis and the breath of alcoholics, a regular reader, Jaimito, asked, "Why we jaimitos come equipped with the right enzymes to enjoy alcohol, while non-jaimitos like Chinese get sick?"

European and Mediterranean civilization would not have been possible without alcohol. I'm defining civilization as a culture with settled agriculture and extensive occupational specialization. Civilization inevitably leads to population growth and the appearance of towns. But, a high density of human population contaminates the water supply, leading to frequent outbreaks of dysentery diseases which cull the population making it impossible to get beyond the very lowest level of civilization. For civilization to flourish, it needs to secure a safe water supply. European and Mediterranean civilization found beer.

Beer production as an organized industry is at least as old as writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt. That is, brewing probably came before towns. It makes sense. As long as water was used for a beverage, the population could never grow, but as soon as we added a little antiseptic to our water, we could avoid the diseases. The expansion of civilization into the forests of Europe was accompanied by producing alcohol out of the local sugar sources, beer where there was grain and wine or cider where there was seasonal fruit.

Meanwhile, Eastern civilizations developed hot beverages: tea. In addition to boiled water, Eastern civilization had spices, many of which add mild antiseptic properties to their food. Without tea and peppers there would have been no Eastern civilization.

The enzymes we need to digest alcohol appear in about half of the population of most of the world, but they appear in about 90 percent of the European and Mediterranean population. I suspect this is a case of recent evolutionary change. Westerners who could not handle alcohol would have had to subsist on water and would have had a much higher mortality rate than those who could handle alcohol. Even if they forced themselves to drink the local alcoholic beverage, they would have been sick most of the time and probably not survived to keep their genes in pool. In time, non-drinkers would become a minority in the West.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, fully half the population can't handle booze. When Westerners arrived in the rest of the world after 1500, by then bringing distilled spirits, this little enzyme imbalance gave the Westerners a tremendous advantage and aid in destroying scores of interesting cultures.

Although half of those Chinese folks that Jaimito was worried about don't have the enzymes to digest alcohol, about half of them do. That's a lot of drinkers. Thomas, of Seeing the Forest points out this ominous story of the effect all those drinkers might be having on the global balance of drinking power. It appears we may be heading into a global shortage of well-aged single malt scotch.
you may be able to find the heavily peated Ardbeg 10-year-old, you can pretty much forget about snagging a bottle of the more subtly smoked Ardbeg 17-year-old scotch -- the distillery ran out of it a few years ago.

"Right now, everything over 14 years old is in jeopardy," says Howard Meister, owner of the Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys. With close to 700 brands, Meister's store is the largest retail source for single-malt whisky in the United States.

"I started building my stocks of single malts years ago," he says, "before they started really taking off . . . I remember being the laughingstock of the other retailers. Now, many of them are calling me searching for certain aged whiskies for their customers. But there just isn't that much to go around anymore."

Not since Scotland's first illicit stills began trickling out spirits in the 18th century has demand been higher and supplies scarcer.


Another factor contributing to the shortage of single malts is their recent discovery by the under-40 crowd in China. Forget the fact that young Chinese might mix it with green tea; it is common for groups at karaoke bars to go through a bottle of scotch in an hour. Even though they may be sipping blends, it taps into the shrinking supply of single malts.

AAAAAAAA!!! MIXING MALT WHISKY WITH TEA!?! I'm glad my dad didn't live to see this. He could barely stand the thought that some people might mix malt with an ice cube (I do in hot weather, but I never told him about it). For god's sake, you Chinese yuppies, if you're going to mix it, use blended whisky and leave the good stuff for the drinkers who can do it right.

It's enough to make a man or a cockroach cry into his beer. Thank Gambrinus we do have our beer to cry into.

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