Beer Tales

Two interesting stories popped up on my various feeds this week, and it just so happened that they were about beer.

The Chemical is Cultural

First, an article from Science Alert about the discovery of the oldest known brewery in China. Two points in particular caught my attention. First, this:

According to McGovern, the brewery processes unearthed at Mijiaya reveal a ritual that has changed little in the millennia since. “All indications are that ancient peoples, [including those at this Chinese dig site], applied the same principles and techniques as brewers do today,” he told Madeline K. Sofia at NPR.

Of course, beer — both its drinking and its brewing — has been a fairly common part of everyday life for a while, but I can’t help but wonder how the craft brewers out there will react to this discovery, if at all. Craft brewing has been in vogue for a couple of years now (the boom started sometime in 2012, if Google search trends are any indication), and its popularity is such that even geek icon Wil Wheaton and local food blogs like Pepper have gotten involved somehow.

I’d imagine there are enough brewing communities around now that more-than-passing interest in this discovery might be likely, especially since the Science Alert article goes on to discuss how residue in some of the unearthed pottery reveals a “surprising beer recipe.” As projects like the Inn at the Crossroads and the unique beer brews mentioned in that same article show, the urge to “recreate” things from seemingly unreachable or irretrievable sources is not new, and there’s no reason craft brewing would be immune to it. Should we expect Ancient Chinese flavors on tap soon?

It’s not like the ingredients will be hard to get. The archaeologists behind the discovery highlight the presence of barley in the brewery’s residual stock — a detail which carries some fascinating implications:

“Barley was one of the main ingredient[s] for beer brewing in other parts of the world, such as ancient Egypt,” Wang told NPR. “It is possible that when barley was introduced from Western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China, it came with the knowledge that the crop was a good ingredient for beer brewing. So it was not only the introduction of a new crop, but also the movement of knowledge associated with the crop.”

Aside from ferrying information on how to use the grain, the introduction of barley could also have had profound cultural consequences, with the hip ingredient playing a part in helping to define social hierarchies inside China.

Here we have a fine example of how science and the humanities can mix better than their widespread (and, might I point out, false) dichotomy would have us believe. Too often we’re told to envision an irreconcilable divide between the supposedly pure quantitative work of science and the supposed qualitative work of the humanities. What a damn shame. There are a lot of ways in which these seemingly disparate fields can and do intersect, as demonstrated by the use of this archaeological dig’s chemical findings to extrapolate cultural history.

This reminds me of another, more recent article from Science Alert, actually.

Just yesterday, the site also reported on a scientific study that points to a possible explanation for the Mongol Empire’s abandonment of its attempt to conquer Europe. Climate was likely to blame, claims the study, and the evidence was in the tree rings.

As the article notes, the sparseness of primary Mongolian accounts had left many historians at a loss; the study answers that problem by digging up another kind of record. Like the speculation spun from the Chinese brewery discovery, this study serves as a good illustration of the effectiveness of applying the tools and methods of science and the humanities to questions that lie beyond their many sub-fields’ usual purview.

The Sound of Satisfaction

In less “serious” news, our second beer tale for today comes courtesy of Kotaku and Overwatch fever. TIL that one of the game’s main sound effects was essentially generated by opening a beer.

“Another extremely challenging sound is the ‘hit-pip.’ When you hit someone, you need to know you made contact. The sound needs to cut through the mix but not feel like it comes from any hero. It went through tons of iteration. Finally, one night I thought, ‘It should be satisfying to hit an enemy.’ Just think about what’s satisfying: beer. So I literally opened a beer bottle. Pssht. The sound is reversed and tweaked a little, but that sound is our hit-pip.”

The excerpt above, culled from the Overwatch Virtual Sourcebook, gives us a nice peek into the sound design process, especially the kind of thinking that guides the choices that have to be made in that field.

Take these lines in particular: “The sound needs to cut through the mix but not feel like it comes from any hero. … ‘It should be satisfying to hit an enemy.'” Sound is a practical element in Overwatch, as in any game, and sound design supervisor Paul Lackey tells us that each sound is crafted to conform to certain specifications, perform certain functions. In this case, the practical requirement: to alert players to a hit, and to do so effectively.

But take a look at that second line, that thought that led to the beer bottle sound: It should be satisfying to hit an enemy. It still implies a function for the sound to perform, but now that function goes beyond the strictly practical (i.e., alert) and goes into the realm of the emotional. Sure, Overwatch might not exactly fall under the same category as “prestige/legacy games” like Mass Effect and Uncharted, but it’s still shaped by the recent gaming landscape that (quite like TV, at least to my barely-a-gamer eyes) envisions games not just as entertainment but as an immersive, if not meaningful, experience.

Games these days want us to be invested — more so, I think, than ever before.

Hence Overwatch laying out its setting’s history and its characters’ background in elaborate animated shorts.

Hence Overwatch even having such a rich, detailed setting at all.

And hence, of course, Overwatch using the satisfying pssht of a fresh beer.