Books and articles I’ve been reading lately:
From the Financial Times, a short piece posing some worthwhile questions about teenage drinking in international context. The danger in such cross-cultural comparisons is imagining that one country’s plan might work elsewhere but, nonetheless, thinking through how and why most Italian teens drink with meals (that is, more safely) is a good tool for imagining better solutions to our own “underage drinking problem.”
If you ever wanted to know more about how hops happen, Rogue Farms has posted some excellent pictures describing how they process hops from raw plant to beer ingredient.
You may have heard the news about a new meta-analysis showing that organic produce contains more antioxidants and less heavy metals compared with their conventional counterparts. The analysis involved many more individual studies than have previous analyses finding that organic practices don’t make food healthier. Excellent work (I have to take the stats folks’ word for it). I hope that it encourages more research on whether and how and why specific organic practices can support better health. Good for everyone, and the article is open-access, too.
Sourdough “hotel,” anyone? (in French)
Tannins in vinifera vs. hybrids – Yes, vinifera-labrusca hybrids have lower tannin concentrations, but they also hold onto their tannins more strongly, according to new research from Cornell’s Gavin Sacks, explaining part of why wines made from hybrids tend to be less tannic in general than viniferas.
Sex, sexism, and the natural wine label – Rémy Charest gives a short analysis of misogynistic wine labels (particularly in natural wines, particularly in Europe) and the debate surrounding them. One more stick on the fire that wants to torch the juvenile old boys club
Periodic aeration of red wine compared to microoxygenation at product scale (Behind AJEV’s paywall) – Occasional rack-and-return for “macrooxygenation” has the same color-fixing and some of the same positive sensory effects as more equipment-intensive microoxygenation? This study seems to be trying to do too much at once and their end-points are all chemical analyses, not sensory (i.e. having someone actually sniff and taste the wines). It’s a start, but I think we’ll all need to see more before trusting that micro-ox can be replaced by just moving your wine around.
The Mad Fermentationist has been running an interesting set of pieces on sour beers, off-cuts from Michael Tonsmeire’s upcoming book on the topic. Lots of good microbiology-in-context (and fascinating beer history) here.
Impact of yeast strain on ester levels and fruity aroma persistence during aging of Bordeaux red wines – It’s hard to take too seriously any one specific study on the importance of choice of yeast or malolactic bacteria on aroma; data and opinions differ. But here’s one more study to add to the stack saying that different yeast strains produce differences in aromas that can be detected 3 and 12 months post-bottling, and that different ML bacteria have much less impact.
One more step toward sustainable local brewing and distilling in Washington: Washington State University researchers are working on better malting grains to provide the state’s (increasingly numerous and successful) brewers and distillers with local sources.
The Smithsonian is running an exhibit on “Transforming the American Table: 1950-2000.” If you’re not able to visit the museum (say, because you live in New Zealand), some of the objects on display are also depicted in a well-curated online space. The wine-related collection includes some great photographs including an image of a UC Davis research lab circa 1940.
Resveratrol levels and all-cause mortality in older community-dwelling adults – This JAMA article is regrettably behind a paywall, but the link will take you to the abstract. While this study made some news this past week and is an interesting addition to the “we don’t understand resveratrol” literature, I honestly don’t find this sort of thing very enlightening. The amount of resveratrol in older adults’ diets (from any and all dietary sources) didn’t correspond to their risk of dying or developing heart disease or cancer. Hardly surprising, given how many other factors are simultaneously influencing death and disease! In practical terms, we’re still where we were before: moderate drinking can be a healthy part of most people’s diets, red wine might be especially good, and we don’t understand which molecules are responsible well enough for a purified and simplified pill to replace eating real food.
What co-fermenting does for the color of syrah – a new study from a group at the University of Seville shows that syrah fermented with 10% white grapes had more persistent, more purple color, but that upping the white fraction to 20% began diluting flavor. Frustrating things about this study: the researchers didn’t examine the effects of white additions lower than 10% — which would have been useful since syrah cofermentations often include a much smaller fraction of white grapes — and the only white grapes used were Pedro Ximenez. PX isn’t exactly a common syrah addition internationally, and it would have been helpful to know whether other varieties (especially the much, much more common coferment culprit viognier) have similar effects.
Why cider is the world’s most misunderstood drink – a really excellent, informative, entertaining note on how most commercial hard cider is more sugar water than apple juice. I’m never picking up another bottle of non-craft cider again.
I’m wildly enthusiastic about the new Ten Speed Press Food + Drink Catalogue for Fall 2014. North, on “the new” Icelandic cuisine, a book entirely about bitter foods, a new bread book from Peter Reinhart are particularly exciting for this natural foodie-food scientist.
Polyphenolic, polysaccharide and oligosaccharide composition of Tempranillo red wines and their relationship with the perceived astringency (behind the Food Chemistry journal’s paywall, regrettably) – evidence that polysaccharides — longish chains of sugar molecules — mitigate how we perceive the astringency of tannins. Especially interesting because polysaccharides can come from yeast lees, supporting the idea that wines aged on their lees have a smoother mouthfeel than those promptly racked off the sediment of dead yeast and other precipitated stuff that collects after fermentation.
Quantitative history makes a comeback (open access at The Chronicle of Higher Education) – biologist becomes a historian and takes his quantitative methods with him. With one of the better quotes I’ve read about having a mid-life crisis: “Instead of divorcing my wife and marrying a graduate student, I divorced my biology and married history.”
One more thoughtful — and yet brief — argument against GMOs, from David Schubert as an editorial for CNN.
Unraveling the Diversity of Grapevine Microbiome (free full text online at PLOSone) – more work on the microbial terroir front, though these researchers haven’t framed their findings that way. They attempted to observe and identify every microorganism — yeast and bacteria — they could find on grapevine leaves from May through June in a Portuguese vineyard. They found, unsurprisingly, a whole lot of microbes — roughly 200, and they’re betting that they didn’t catch as many as half of what’s out there. Foundational work for folks looking at vineyard microbes in more specific ways.
Degradation of Aflatoxin B1 during the fermentation of alcoholic beverages (Toxins, free full-text in PubMedCentral) – a new study showing that a particular aflatoxin — a highly toxic compound produced by molds that can grow on both grain and grapes — is partially degraded during wine fermentation, but apparently not during beer fermentation. Not all that helpful in practical terms because only about 30% of the aflatoxin was degraded — and who knows whether these results will be reproducible under different fermentation conditions, with different yeasts, at different temperatures…
Food items contributing most to variation in antioxidant intake; a cross-sectional study among Norwegian women – Coffee explained a full half of the differences between Norwegian women’s antioxidant intake. Red wine, tea, blueberries, walnuts, cinnamon, broccoli, and oranges were also especially important. I’d love to see these kind of data across countries and cultures, not so much for what it might say about improving health, but for how it reflects food culture in an interesting way. (Free full-text online; hooray!)
Specialized Science (article in Infection and Immunity, regrettably behind a paywall) – an incredibly intelligent consideration of the benefits and costs of ever-increasing scientific specialization, by one of my all-time favorite rockstar microbiologists who makes a welcome habit of philosophizing about his craft. Understanding Wine Technology by David Bird This book is currently in its third edition; I read the first edition because that’s what was in-stock at my university library. I wish I could recommend it. Amazon and other reviews indicate that many people seem to find it helpful. But I can’t quite figure out who Bird is addressing: he glosses over some details with barely an explanation, while giving more detail about others than would be needed by anyone shy of an enology tech. Moreover, while I appreciate his effort to make science understandable, he’s sometimes factually inaccurate, even allowing for changes since the book was published. Nevertheless, it will give you an opportunity to think about the undiscussed, “hidden” processing steps that happen in much of wine production.
Communication: Spontaneous Scientists – improvisation to help scientists communicate more effectively, an informal review of people and programs trying it out, on Nature. A great idea, and part of a movement in the US to increase scientists’ communication training. Now, let’s move it from the elite to the mainstream.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman – Some reviewers on Amazon were deeply disappointed that this book wasn’t a grown-up version of Harry Potter. But that’s not at all what Grossman is doing, even if his book does involve an unhappy youth, an unexpected invite to a magical school, and his adventures thereafter. Really, this book is about happiness and its absence when we live constantly in search — or hope, or expectation — of our dreams. This is not a happy book. It is thought-provoking, and it is well worth a few afternoon’s time. I devoured the whole thing in a day and a half.
Severe Drought Grows Worse in California (January 17, 2014) — When the New York Times headlines a story about agriculture in California, you know it’s a big deal. Possibly the most disturbing part of this story is how it highlights how tremendously wasteful water practices have become a taken-for-granted norm for many folks. Landscape watering and hour-long showers? How about xeroscaping and moving our soapy rumps a bit faster?