Friday saw me thinking a lot about blending. I awoke to the seemingly impossible news that the UK (or, more precisely, English voters, as folks here in Edinburgh will be quick to point out) had voted to leave the European Union. And then I went to work, where we’re exemplifying the power of blending multidisciplinary research teams. I sat in a synthetic biology lab populated by microbiologists, geneticists, automation and biomedical engineers, computer scientists, designers, and me (the resident social scientist), by people from across Europe, Asia, and North America, where we all ended up spending more time mutually coping with Brexit than talking about yeast genetics.
Arguments in favor of the power of blending evidently didn’t win over British separatists. I can’t help but wonder whether Remain would have prevailed if the British population spent more time with good sherry and good beer instead of gulping unthinkingly through volumes of the cheap stuff. Granted, that opinion has a lot to do with the evening’s events after I left the lab, the first of which was an informal sherry tasting.
Sherry conveys one lesson about blending: resilience comes from interdependence. Fino and Manzanilla – “biologically aged” styles – age under a blanket (the unsuspecting would probably say “scum”) of oxygen-dependent yeast. In contrast with ordinary table wines, sherry barrels are only filled partially, leaving plenty of oxygen-filled head space to let flor yeast develop on the exposed surface. That space, plus the hot climate, means plenty of evaporation, which means that barrel volumes are topped up with wine from younger barrels, and so on down the line – the solera system, which also helps build microbial consistency from year to year.
What’s fascinating about that well-organized system is the degree of unpredictability that remains. Flor yeast develops differently in individual barrels such that individual casks end up destined for different kinds of wines, and any bottled sherry is the product of blending to achieve something appropriately typical of the house and style. And what’s fascinating about that unpredictability is that it’s still unpredictable. My forays into the scientific sherry literature turn up surprisingly little. Moreover, what’s there was mostly done before the advent of contemporary genetic techniques that have dramatically improved the level of resolution at which we study microbial communities. Why do we know so little about how flor develops? The bottom-line answer is almost inevitably “money,” but I wonder: are sherry producers quite content to continue living with this system of consistency and unpredictability without trying to have more control?
Wine, and an increasing number of increasingly interesting beers, teaches another lesson about blending: blending can transform acceptable but lackluster components into a transcendental whole. Friday’s sherry tasting led on to a beer tasting with Evin O’Riordan, who had come up from his Kernel Brewery in London to talk through a few of his beers. The first, a moderately funky Bière de Saison, ages in well-used Burgundy barrels, from whence come the funk. The same beer goes into each barrel, but the same beer doesn’t come out; each develops differently, and so the team has decisions to make about how and what to blend to make “the beer.” There is no formula, and if there’s predictability, they haven’t found it yet. Evin says that the blends that impress them the most at first tend to be least interesting over time, and that the initially merely okay blends tend to turn into their favorites over time. Individual barrels themselves can be just fine – and very occasionally so good as to warrant being bottled individually – but tend not to have the dimension and the complexity of what they can accomplish together. And what they can accomplish together is quite something: exceptionally drinkable (much more so than most Bretty sours, to my taste), but complex enough to be worth drinking and to warrant some attention; that best-case scenario of a beer equally well-suited for thinking and for drinking.
Resilience and transformation. Control and serendipity. Expertise and multiple viewpoints. At the risk of suggesting that Europe be organized on the solera system (or of being accused of bad politics), these seem like good principles for making more than just nice drinks.