New Study Reveals We Can Identify One Trillion Distinct Smells

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A new story in the Washington Post’s Health, Science & Environment section, entitled Human nose can detect at least 1 trillion odors — far more than thought, says study of smell, appears to upend conventional wisdom about the number of smells that humans can identify. The general number has been around 10,000 as long as I can remember. By contrast, we can see “a few million different colors” and our ears can take in around 340,000 different tones. So while smell used to be a lot farther down on the sensory spectrum, this study would appear to rocket our sense of smell to the front of the line. For beer lovers, that can’t be a surprise, because our nose conveys so much more about a beer than seeing or hearing it can, and not even tasting it comes close, as any person who’s had a head cold can tell you, after trying to taste a beer without a working sense of smell.

The study itself, Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli, will be published in the journal Science. Here’s the abstract:

Humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different tones, but the number of discriminable olfactory stimuli remains unknown. The lay and scientific literature typically claims that humans can discriminate 10,000 odors, but this number has never been empirically validated. We determined the resolution of the human sense of smell by testing the capacity of humans to discriminate odor mixtures with varying numbers of shared components. On the basis of the results of psychophysical testing, we calculated that humans can discriminate at least 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. This is far more than previous estimates of distinguishable olfactory stimuli. It demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.

It will be very interesting to see if further studies corroborate this finding, but frankly it makes a lot of sense (no pun intended).

Science also has a short interview with Andreas Keller, one of the scientists who worked on the study, where he explains some of the reasons his team thinks that their study has shown we’re capable of so many more aromas than previously thought.

Beer In Film #75: Tour of Miller’s Milwaukee Brewery

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Today’s beer video is an interesting tour of the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee. Most of the tours I’ve taken have been with consumers, brewers or some mix of beer people, but this one was done by Industry Week, who’s mission is “Advancing the Business of Manufacturing.” They also put on an annual IW Best Plants Conference , with seminars and plant tours of local manufacturers. The 2008 conference included this Tour of the Miller Brewing Company’s Milwaukee Plant. As a result, it’s more focused on the manufacturing aspects if the brewery, which is pretty cool.

The Realities Of Opening A Brewery

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Collin McDonnell, the brewmaster of Petaluma’s new HenHouse Brewing has a wake up call for anybody considering becoming a brewer. His piece on Serious Eats, So You Think You Want to Open a Brewery…, is chock full of the unglamorous, ugly realities of daily life in the average brewery.

You can sum up his advice with one word. Imagine you’re Ben Braddock (as played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). Imagine further that you just graduated from college, and are convinced you want to become a brewer. You’re at a cocktail party. You’re chatting with an older, more experienced, seasoned brewer. You let drop that you, too, want to join the glamorous world of brewing. Here’s what he tells you.

A Brewer: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
A Brewer: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
A Brewer: Cleaning.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Cleaning.

That and the soul-crushing act of cold calling on places to sell the beer. I worked retail for years, in a variety of worlds — records (what the kids call music these days), video, comic books and yes, beer — and wouldn’t wish that job on a dog. There are people whose personalities are well-suited to that life, thank goodness, but I am not one of them.

I have the utmost respect for brewers. Having visited more than my fair share of breweries (while I’ve never been a ticker, I can safely guess the number is well north of 1,000), it wasn’t hard to realize it wasn’t for me. I’m lazy, for starters, and have never been overly fastidious in my approach to cleanliness. Plus there’s a lot of backbreaking physical activity, and I’m much more at home being sedentary. Sitting in front of a laptop all day is much more to my liking. Also, most brewers start early, around the time they make the doughnuts. I am not a morning person. In the words of the great Bill Murray, channeling a jazz musician being interviewed by Mr. Rogers, “you should sleep late; it’s much easier on your constitution.” So I greatly admire that there are people enough unlike me that they can get off their ass and actually do what’s necessary to make beer for me to drink (and write about) each and every day.

With every sip of beer I take, I thank people like Collin and the countless other professional brewers working today in a — mostly — thankless job. So give Collin’s article a read, especially if you’re thinking about opening a brewery. I posted the motivational poster below a few years back, but it seems pretty relevant to today’s discussion about the difference between the perception of what a brewer does and the reality of a brewer’s workday.

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Beer In Film #69: How It’s Made — Beer

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Today’s beer video is from the documentary series How It’s Made that runs on the Discovery Channel in Canada and Great Britain, and on the Science Channel in the U.S. How It’s Made has been running for 22 seasons, having debuted in 2001. Each half-hour show features around four roughly five-minute segments, so they’ve covered a lot over the course of 286 episodes so far. This show, about Beer, was the third segment in episode 3, the 3rd episode in Season 1.

Genome Sequence of Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis

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Here’s an interesting journal article for the yeast wrangler in you to geek out on. Genome Sequence of Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, the World’s First Pure Culture Lager Yeast details the efforts of Andrea Walther, Ana Hesselbart and Jürgen Wendland from the Carlsberg Laboratory to get a handle on the origins of modern lager yeast using more modern gene sequencing tools. Here’s the wonderfully obtuse explanation from the Abstract:

Lager yeast beer production was revolutionized by the introduction of pure culture strains. The first established lager yeast strain is known as the bottom fermenting Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, which was originally termed Unterhefe No.1 by Emil Chr. Hansen and used in production in since 1883. S. carlsbergensis belongs to group I/Saaz-type lager yeast strains and is better adapted to cold growth conditions than group II/Frohberg-type lager yeasts, e.g. the Weihenstephan strain WS34/70. Here, we sequenced S. carlsbergensis using next generation sequencing technologies. Lager yeasts are descendants from hybrids formed between a Saccharomyces cerevisiae parent and a parent similar to Saccharomyces eubayanus. Accordingly, the S. carlsbergensis 19.5 Mb genome is substantially larger than the 12 Mb S. cerevisiae genome. Based on the sequence scaffolds, synteny to the S. cerevisae genome, and by using directed PCRs for gap closure we generated a chromosomal map of S. carlsbergensis consisting of 29 unique chromosomes. We present evidence for genome and chromosome evolution within S. carlsbergensis via chromosome loss and loss of heterozygosity specifically of parts derived from the S. cerevisiae parent. Based on our sequence data and via FACS analysis we determined the ploidy of S. carlsbergensis. This inferred that this strain is basically triploid with a diploid S. eubayanus and haploid S. cerevisiae genome content. In contrast the Weihenstephan strain, which we re-sequenced, is essentially tetraploid composed of two diploid S. cerevisiae and S. eubayanus genomes. Based on conserved translocations between the parental genomes in S. carlsbergensis and the Weihenstephan strain we propose a joint evolutionary ancestry for lager yeast strains.

If that made your head spin, try the full article, which was released in full online at the end of February. It will be published in the journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics in a future issue. It’s fascinating reading.

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Emil Christian Hansen, taken in 1908. Hansen was the scientist at the Carlsberg Brewery responsible for isolating the lager yeast in 1883.

Beer In Film #58: A Chat With Ron Pattinson

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Today’s beer video is a short interview of beer historian Ron Pattinson, the description for which reads. “Ron talks old beers with Bocky whilst sitting next to a very bad gnome. Find out about the latest Once Upon A Time Beers as well as Ron’s pursuit of the truth about porters.”

Beer In Film #32: The Chemistry Of Beer With Grant Wood

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Today’s beer video is all about the Chemistry of Beer and features Grant Wood, when he still brewmaster for Samuel Adams, at their Boston brewery. Grant recently left to open his own brewery, which is in Texas. His Revolver Brewery is also making some really terrific beers. The video is part of the Byte Science Science series, and provides a great overview of the chemical processes involved in brewing beer.

Beer In Film #27: The Chemistry of Beer Online Course

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Today’s beer video is an interview with Mark Morvant, professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma , by the local newspaper blog The Thirsty Beagle. Morvant is teaching a free online course on The Chemistry of Beer. The class started January 13, but apparently you can still participate and catch up if you hurry and register soon. So far, over 7,000 people have signed up for his class. Watch the video below to see if it’s for you.

Sir John Barleycorn — Miss Hop — (and their only child) — Master Porter

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Here’s a pretty cool historical artifact, from the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale. It’s a print that was created in 1808 by London publisher Thomas Tegg. It’s printed on woven paper, an “etching with stipple” and is hand-colored. The “plate mark is 25 x 35.2 cm.,” on a sheet of paper 27 x 28 cm, and the plate is numbered 151 in the upper righthand corner. When new it sold for one shilling, but I’m guessing it goes for a bit more now. It’s title is “Sir John Barleycorn — Miss Hop — (and their only child) — Master Porter” and is further “dedicated to the publicans of London.” Ah, they had a baby and named it Porter, too. Small world.

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