Scientific American Writes Uninformed Article About Beer, Gets Pwned in Comments

Every once in a while I run across something that makes me realize what a happy little bubble we have here.  This site is frequented by some of the most opened-minded and knowledgeable beer geeks around.  Frankly, I forget that there are other folks out there, some of them very intelligent and articulate, who really don’t know their ass from their elbow when it comes to beer.  But that doesn’t stop them from writing about it. 

Observe this article from Scientific American, which talks about what makes old beer taste bad.  On its surface the article is accurate, stating that the alpha acids found in hops degrade over time to create nasty compounds, including tricyclocohumol, which can create a “skunky” flavor in beer.

They also share the fact that this process is accelerated by storing beer in warm conditions. A pilsner’s tricyclocohumol concentration grew fourfold when stored at 83 degrees for eight months.  A pilsner stored at room temperature for four years has six times the concentration of tricyclocohumol.  Interesting.

But the article actually comes off the rails long before this information is shared.  Like in the first sentence:

Beer, for the most part, is not like wine—it does not improve with age. Quite the contrary, in fact. Old beer is a comparatively unpalatable shadow of its former self—skunky in odor, bitter in aftertaste.

Um…not exactly.  The information in the article is taken from a study commissioned by the Bitburger brewing company in Germany, who makes their flagship Bitburger Premium Pils.  It makes sense that they’d be interested in what makes beer taste skunky over time, as pilsners typically suffer with age.

But other beers, as we all know, don’t suffer with age – they improve, or at least change in interesting ways.  But this doesn’t come across at all in the article.  Left to their own devices, readers would be seeking out a Bud with the freshest “born on” date they can find. Yuck.

Much like happens here, the best information on the page can be found in the Comments section, where a reader called “Cramer” very kindly and evenhandedly tells the author that he’s full of balloon juice. He’s obviously a beer geek of the first order, and a geek-geek as well, because he reads Scientific American. 🙂

I don’t blame the article’s author John Matson here – he’s a science writer who writes about space shuttles, quantum physics and white dwarfs (the stars, not the dude from Jackass).  I’m sure he looked at the study, parsed the data and wrote his piece based upon what was in front of him.

Mostly, I celebrate Cramer, and by extension you guys and gals, who swooped in with his knowledge and insight and laid down the logic without being an ass about it.  There is more useful information in his comment than in the article itself, and it’s obvious that this guy knows his stuff.  I love it when a beer geek comes to the rescue.

Pop over to Scientific American and check out what I’m talking about.  The article, though flawed, is still a good read, and the comment are even more informative.




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Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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41 Comments on “Scientific American Writes Uninformed Article About Beer, Gets Pwned in Comments”

  1. April 19, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    The comments made me giggle with excitement. Major pwn3ge.

    • April 19, 2011 at 10:20 am #

      Right? I want to recruit that guy to comment here. Imagine all the material we’d give him!

  2. April 19, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    Effing A! That made my week! Nice find and summary, Jim.

    It reminds me of a friend who brews. He’s a scientist at the university who happens to spend all day in a lab studying HIV. So, he’s certainly very smart and does important work. That said, he’s a shitty brewer. Because of his scientific knowledge, he often feels he knows better than brewers. Interestingly, one of the best brewers I know has a high school education. Hell, I barely made it through high school science and my beers blow away my friend’s.

    Science should probably just stay out of beer. I think we’ve got that subject covered. If you needed evidence, refer back to the SA article.

    • April 19, 2011 at 10:34 am #

      Well put, Zac. While the science of brewing is important, scientists brewing are not a guaranteed home run. Sometimes you can know too much. Or in the case of the SA article, very little of what matters.

      • April 19, 2011 at 10:40 am #

        It’s funny. My friend always wants to brew beers as hoppy as mine, but he can’t seem to get it right. I just tell him to throw in more hops. Then, he complains about the cost. Hops are so expensive as I’m sure you know.

        When we brewed a stout together, he kept pouring more water over the grain to suck out every last bit of sugar and to regain some of our volume. I finally made him stop. I told him I’d rather have four gallons of a good beer than five of something watered-down. There was no need to be greedy.

        Scientists just don’t get. I mean, fucking magnets, how do they work?

        • April 19, 2011 at 10:46 am #

          Exactly! Fucking magnets!!

      • April 19, 2011 at 10:45 am #

        Magnets are magic. Isn’t that why they both start with mag?

        • April 19, 2011 at 10:48 am #

          Like they have little wizards in them? Or bears??

        • Don
          April 19, 2011 at 10:50 am #

          I’m really getting uncomfortable with all the bear talk on this blog…they are scary.

        • April 19, 2011 at 10:51 am #


          Bears are awesome!!

        • Don
          April 19, 2011 at 10:52 am #


        • April 19, 2011 at 10:58 am #

          Ya huh.

          And if you keep up that attitude, this kung-fu bear is gonna crack your head open with his kung-fu bear stick!:

        • Don
          April 19, 2011 at 11:08 am #

          I bet that stick was the holder for a really awesome toy his Mom bought for him!

        • April 19, 2011 at 11:10 am #

          Like a small human boy to toss around?

        • Don
          April 19, 2011 at 11:12 am #

          Exactly, but I’m betting the boy ran away because BEARS ARE SCARY!

        • April 19, 2011 at 11:16 am #

          Or he wasn’t as durable as the stick.

          They tend to get squishy when flung about with clawed hands.

  3. Don
    April 19, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Very interesting, especially since my next post will be about drinking my first beer I “aged” myself. Also in the first paragraph, I thought you were talking about us! Whew!

    • April 19, 2011 at 10:46 am #

      Yeah, dodged a bullet there, huh? 😉

      • Don
        April 19, 2011 at 10:47 am #

        Hopefully they won’t catch on…

  4. The Wookie
    April 19, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Very nice, loved the angry beer geek comments. Let’s hope those commenters find this blog. Think of how much fun you’ll have.

    • April 19, 2011 at 10:48 am #

      Or the material they’ll have to work with.

      But yeah, I thought it was funny how I was compelled to write a blog post about the comments on another blog. Obviously good stuff, and I’d love to have those folks join the fray over here.

      • The Wookie
        April 19, 2011 at 11:00 am #

        I am writing a blog post about your blog post about another blog’s comments. Then later I am going to Tweet about it and update my Facebook status to “Tweeting about my blog on another blog’s view of another blog”.

        The end game is to be in Scientific American’s article next month that claims social media is what causes skunky beer.

        • April 19, 2011 at 11:07 am #

          Probably because we’re all too busy farting around with the web to put the beer in the fridge!

    • April 19, 2011 at 10:50 am #

      I don’t know. After all the missteps in Jim’s last post, he might not want such commenters in these parts.

      • April 19, 2011 at 11:06 am #

        It’s not my fault an awesome brewery has a hinky name. 😦

        Or that I sometimes replace “g” with “k.” You know what I’m sakink?

  5. April 19, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Hilarious! I really like the comment from saying that “for the most part” wines are also meant to be consumed young, thereby invalidating the author’s opening sentence even more.

    • April 19, 2011 at 11:09 am #

      Me too. I didn’t know that about wines, because who cares, right? It’s wine.

      • April 19, 2011 at 11:15 am #

        Right. All I know is that it comes in red, white, and pink. 🙂

        That poor author had no idea that he would be getting it from all angles. I hope he does some more research next time.

        • April 19, 2011 at 11:22 am #

          Yeah, I was reading the article like WTF? and then saw the comments and thought “you kind of have it coming dude.” I like how the author defends himself until he realizes he’s sunk and gives up.

  6. johnking82
    April 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Bitburger: skunky as Bears eating skunks.

    • April 19, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      Apparently Bitburger is skunky enough to warrant a skunk study.

      But there’s nothing skunkier than the legendary bearskunk, when a bear and a skunk succumb a forbidden passion and create a beast with incredible strength and stinkiness. It’s kind of like a werewolf that smells bad.

      And is twice as awesome, because it’s a bear (obviously).

      • Don
        April 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

        SCARY!!! 😦

      • johnking82
        April 19, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

        whats funny is…one of my good beer drinking buddies LOVES Bitburger (sent him the link).

        This is my favorite skunk reference:

        • April 19, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

          Well he’ll be happy to know they are trying to suck less. 🙂

      • April 19, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

        Wouldn’t that be a beunk or perhaps a skear?

        • Don
          April 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

          It would be a Skear, cuz I’m askear’d of um.

        • April 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

          I believe the technical name is ursus reekis horribilis.

          Or as I say, stinkbear.

  7. April 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    just wanted to make sure you understand what “skunked” beer is, and are not confusing the issue in the same way that mr. matson does:

    tricyclocohumol is NOT the cause of “skunk” in beer, tho it may indeed give off-flavors/aromas. instead it is the mercaptan, 3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol, which is formed from hop isohumulones by wavelengths of light (both UV-light AND near-UV wavelengths above 400nm) in the presence of riboflavin.

    a beer may be “fresh” date-wise, but in clear or green glass, it can “skunk” in as quick as 5 minutes. this even includes a freshly-poured glass of beer from a fresh keg. put it under direct sunlight for a couple minutes, and you’ll know what i mean.

    • April 20, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

      Your comment echoes that which you made over at Scientific American, oh geek of the middle kingdom. I almost updated my post based upon the info you shared and now wish I did.

      Thanks for the correction. We’d love it if you stuck around. There are MANY mistakes to correct in these parts. 🙂

  8. AntlerAdam
    April 22, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    more fodder (via the Brewmasters FB page… who’s managing it now that it’s defunct?)

    • April 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

      Obviously it’s Discovery running the page. They dump any beer-related stuff they have to promote on the page, which is usually followed with 150 people asking if the show is coming back.

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