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POINT OF BREW --- Michael J. Lewis

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Louis Pasteur Louis Pasteur Photo; Wikiwand

Beating Microbes Takes Time and Patience.

There has been a battle between bacteria and brewers since the first brewer, laboring in the mists of ancient times, brewed the first beer. On that long time scale we have come to understand and learned how to win this battle only recently, lets say within the last couple of centuries. A key step forward was the work of Louis Pasteur in his études sur la Biére published in 1876 and the English language edition that appeared three years later. These studies were of a piece with his seminal work on wine and vinegar and milk begun in the middle of the nineteenth century, from which came, with much else, pasteurization. Brewers’ total victory over bacteria has happened even more recently, within the time of my 60-year association with the industry. This arose because we finally came to understand the nature of the enemy, learned ways to test-for and find him and enumerate him, developed procedures and practices to defeat him and applied those rigorous SOPs in breweries specifically designed to make that possible.

It has been a long haul. These days accidental microbial spoilage in beers from major breweries and well-run craft operations is virtually unknown.

The fact that occasional spoilage by bacteria of beers made in breweries under less than optimal conditions serves as a reminder that the potential for bacterial spoilage of process and product has not gone away. It merely lurks. The moment brewers forget the mantra to clean and sanitize the likelihood of beer spoilage increases exponentially.

Any who have read this far will realize that the spoilage of beer by bacteria is a reasonable metaphor or model for the infection of humans by the new corona virus. By the time you read this column we shall likely hit 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in these United States. Though this disease and spoiled beer and are different things, they are the same age-old face-off between humankind and the microbial world.

On one team we have the naïve microbes, be they bacteria or viruses, that simply want to find a quiet place where they can thrive. They have no requirement beyond an environment that suits them. On the other team are humans with their social needs and desires, free will, intelligence, civil rights guaranteed by the constitution, insecurities and emotions and expectations and whatnot. None of these traits will be the slightest use in combatting the pandemic or beer spoilage and might indeed get in the way of establishing control and finding a solution.

However, humans now have a huge battle advantage that will assure defeat of this pandemic sooner than the centuries brewers needed to fully control beer spoilage. That advantage is our powerful battery of scientific talent, superb equipment and mountains of accumulated knowledge.

Unfortunately, science does not have a magic wand. Science takes time and circumspection to do the job and it is up to all of us, as a community, to provide those necessary commodities. As our hesitation to take early action to protect public health cost many lives, so we should realize that impatience to re-open the economy could take many more. Things might be different if the corona virus were intimidated by automatic weapons, confederate flags, appeals to constitutional rights, angry unmasked faces and Almighty God in His church. But it isn’t.  

I’m in the cohort that is most sensitive to infection and for whom that infection can be most dire. With all this hand-washing I think I have lost two glove sizes already. Nevertheless, I shall press on with this practice because it’s easy to do and a prime line of defense against the corona virus. I also intend to stay in my hidey-hole for as long as it takes and, when I venture out, to wear my mask. That’s partly because I can and partly because, with the reopening of businesses there are a lot of aggressive folk out there, freshly released from shut-down, who are a new breed of carrier whom I can’t identify. They make me uneasy.

Although I understand the desire for a return to business as usual and wish for that as much as anyone, flattening the curve does not mean flattening the virus. What makes me most nervous about reopening is that the noisy, indeed fierce, bravado of a few will infect many and we shall become more careless instead of more careful.

A rather simple calculation, assuming a low rate of infection and mortality, suggests that if we forget sheltering, distancing, hand washing and masking our current 100,000 deaths in this country could easily grow to 1,000,000 or more human souls. 


Michael J Lewis MUG Picmonkey

Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

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