Sunday, February 27, 2011

M for Innovation

Just watched the Oscars, so awards are on my mind. Winners are mostly of two categories: flatly predictable and staggeringly unjust (see A Beautiful Mind, Scorsese's Taxi Driver losing to Rocky, and Braveheart FFS). How could a Colin Firth period drama featuring a disability not win an oscar? Winning an oscar is so easy, you could do it on concept alone, watch:

Title: Marie
Synopsis: Marie Curie is a fiercely committed woman who endures the accidental death of genius husband Pierre, and a progressive illness caused by exposure to radiation during her nobel-award-winning research, to invent radiation therapy and X-rays that save the lives of street urchins with shattered legs etc. 
Critical scene: Aware she is dying, Curie stoically keeps working, you know, for the children. The camera fades out as Curie glances at her dead husband's photo, illuminated only by the blue-ish light given out by the lethal polonium isotopes in Curie's tireless hands.  
Starring: Kiera Knightley (young) and Meryl Streep (Old) as Marie Curie; Javier Bardem as Pierre.

You know I've just won an oscar, right?

This year, however, the Oscars got something right. Black Swan is an innovative movie perfectly executed, and Natalie Portman thoroughly deserved the oscar. 

Now, I don't know about you, but when I think about "Innovation" and "Perfect execution", I also think about Molson's M beer (sorry, that link was as convoluted and unnecessary as Inception). Mostly because someone recently gave me a can of M for free, and the label boldly proclaims its innovative qualities. The beer is "Microcarbonated", which means one of two things:

1. the bubbles are smaller
2. the carbonation process is managed at the "micro" level to be precisely consistent

The result is, in their words, "a lager with an exceptionally drinkable taste". Now, putting aside for a moment the niggling fact that "taste" is a metaphysical concept, and can therefore not be "drinkable" (beer is drinkable, Mr Molsons' marketing copy-editor, and I bet you earned a bucket for that blurb), I'm wondering what this all means and whether the beer is actually really that good. Thankfully, I can test the latter first hand, and I'll get to that in a bit. Not the former though, as it is "patent-pending", so we don't know exactly how (or why) Molson's invented a process that makes smaller or more consistent carbonation. But we can talk about the science of carbonation itself. 

First off, nobody puts bubbles into beer. Beer is carbonated by natural or artificial means, which means that beer is partly a carbon dioxide (CO2) solution. Some beers have more CO2 in them, which means they produce more bubbles and feel fizzier when we drink them. Large disruptions (e.g. shaking) and smaller ones (e.g. imperfections in glassware) disturb the delicate equilibrium of the CO2 solution, and bubbles form. All bubbles form the same size: small. However, other factors determine whether they grow larger or remain tiny:
1. liquid agitation: shaking produces more bubbles which join as they bump into each other, producing bigger bubbles.
2. surface tension: as a bubble forms, CO2 from the surrounding liquid will naturally tend to join the bubble as it causes small agitations in its path through the beer. Proteins in the beer determine how tough the skin of the bubble is, and therefore how likely it is to accept more CO2.
3. atmospheric pressure: drinking a beer up a mountain makes a bubblier beer (probably, I did no research for this bit).

"Perfect" carbonation
Now, we can be fairly sure that Molsons are not taking very careful steps to ensure that we all drink our beer in the calmest environment possible, so we can rule out #1 as a factor. Plus, altering the protein makeup of beer is part of the brewing process itself, and therefore in no way innovative. So I presume Molson's have just figured out a way to accurately carbonate their beer to a very specific concentration of CO2 (I'll be cynical and guess it's just some sort of clever gas pump) Now, I'm not sure if Molsons' are aware, but Sodastream has been doing this for years. Trust me, my brother and I drank enough experimentally-carbonated substances (e.g. "Fizzy Tea!", "Fizzy Milk!" and "Fizzy Heinz Baked Beans!") as kids to know that you have a great deal of control over the fizz-factor with one of these babies. Plus, this all raises the obvious question: "just because you can consistently produce X level of carbonation, why the hell does that entitle you to claim that that level of carbonation is better than any other?"

Microcarbonation in action, I guess
So I am confused as to what exactly Molsons have done that warrants patenting. It's not even that innovative; not like breast-milk ice-cream, for example. Maybe the genius of this innovation just has to be sampled. Here goes...

(Minutes later...) I just finished it. It tastes pretty much like any other adjunct lager. It is about as fizzy as a fountain coke at McDonalds, which I have always found to be a perfectly lovely level of carbonation. I'm extremely pleased with this lager because it was free. In any other circumstances, I'd pass. It's not great, but hardly terrible either, and the slightly grim aftertaste is nothing like as bad as that left by the Academy's shameful failure to award the outstanding 10-nominated True Grit a single damn statue.

Afterword: I asked the fine folk of #beer chatroom to name some recent genuine beer production innovations. If they ever get beyond suggestions like "vortex bottles" I'll actually produce a post on the subject...