The curious case of fermentation

Fermentation is a process present in many of the foods we eat – wine, beer, chocolate, or bread to name a few. Despite being part of our daily lives, many people do not know what it is or how it works. Its discovery has left us not only with a good taste in the mouth but some extraordinary stories that deserve to be shared.

Put simply, there are many types of fermentation (alcoholic, lactic, acetic, among others), but they all involve a chemical reaction produced by microorganisms that transform complex substances into organic compounds. The easiest example to highlight is that of wine, in which the sugar of the grape is transformed into alcohol.

Fermentación vino
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The German Purity Law, or, how without alcohol there is nothing

The German Purity Law dates from 1516 and was decreed by William IV of Bavaria. It established that beer could be made with only three ingredients: water, hops, and malt barley. No fool, William IV had a monopoly on barley so this law benefited him handsomely. This law is considered one of the first (if not the first) food regulations in the world. 

But beer enthusiasts who know the steps for making this beverage might wonder, what about the yeast? We suppose that after long discussions they decided to add it to the list of ingredients, and they must have concluded that without yeast there is no alcohol and beer without alcohol is just not the same. But yeast wasn’t added to the purity list until 1906, nearly 50 years after Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization, a process that inhibits spoilage and gives beer a longer shelf life.

Fermentación cerveza
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One for you and all your yeasts

In The Beer Lover’s Book, by Christian Berger and Philippe Duboë-Laurence, the authors recount how brewers revered the wooden paddle with which they stirred the beer. Some were given magical attributes and were considered so valuable that they were passed down from father to son. It was believed that such an instrument was capable of improving the taste of the drink. However, modernity had other data, and it was understood, years later, that each brewing paddle contained a large cluster of yeast that was transferred to each batch anew, achieved their long-awaited and crucial fermentation.

pala fermentación cerveza
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Better to love me in winter

Fermentation, in addition to providing health benefits, is an empirically acquired process, done through observation. Likewise, one of its greatest virtues was that of allowing the preservation of food in times when refrigeration did not exist. Together with smoke, vinegar, and salt, fermentation allowed us to store certain ingredients or dishes longer for consumption under more extreme conditions. Foods such as sauerkraut, chocolate, or gherkins would not be the same without this process.

vinagre fermentación chucrut
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Taxes and homebrews

The craft beer movement in the United States had a particular catalyst that allowed for the development of independent brewers: taxes, or lack of them. Thanks to former President Jimmy Carter and Senator Alan Cranston, on October 14, 1978, homebrewers were exempted from paying taxes on the beer they made for their own consumption (they could only produce up to 200 liters), which would ultimately lead to a niche hobby in the world of fermentation.

cerveza casera fermentación
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