Why you should care
Because this is how your beer and wine may soon be made.
Malt the barley, grind it, make a sugary liquid called wort, wash it to extract the last vestiges of sugar, hold the wort between 50–78 Celsius until it’s time to be boiled, and then add the yeast — that’s how beer is usually made. But there’s a faster, cheaper way now. Thank nature, or, more precisely, the creature that packs a punch that could teach Negan and Deadpool a thing or two about comic violence: the mantis shrimp.
Relying on a surprisingly destructive but efficient natural process adopted by the mantis shrimp and the pistol shrimp millions of years ago, a growing range of technologies is emerging, only to be quickly lapped up by craft brewers.
We had to convince people that we weren’t certifiably crazy.
Doug Mancosky, biotech researcher
The mechanism, cavitation, involves the generation of a low-pressure bubble that quickly collapses, after generating temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, and pressure 2,000 times that of the atmosphere. Corrosive, cavitation was long viewed as a problem child of nature and difficult to study. But in recent years, a slew of processing industries, from petroleum to edible oil and liquid eggs, have co-opted it, trying to tame its excesses to hasten other natural processes including fermentation. Now, the alcohol industry is joining the club.
“When I first joined the company … we had to convince people that we weren’t certifiably crazy,” says Doug Mancosky, a biotech researcher with Hydro Dynamics Inc., which has devised technology that allows brewers to extract flavors from hops and fruit purees faster using cavitation, to then inject into beer.
Not anymore. Turns out, craft brewers are fans of fruity notes, and often pay up to $25 a pound for designer hops. So, “brew more with less” was a hit sales pitch. In less than two years, Hydro Dynamics has licensed its technology to major brewers like Anchor Brewing, Terrapin Beer, Witch’s Hat, Yazoo and Cabarrus, companies with headquarters spanning the U.S. And its technology is far from the only cavitation-based mechanism researchers have developed that brewing firms are rushing to adopt.
Last year, physicist Francesco Meneguzzo and Lorenzo Albanese, of the Italian government-funded Institute of Biometeorology, published the first results on brewing beer with grain processed through cavitation. Their adventure in cavitation brewing began when Meneguzzo started working with an international team “looking for ways to control hydrodynamic cavitation for in-house heating.”
That led them to team up and create a device that, using a so-called Venturi tube, constricts the flow of a liquid so that its pressure drops and, according to Meneguzzo, effectively boils at a low temperature with cavitation bubbles that collapse downstream. Meneguzzo and Albanese’s Cavibeer technology could process even unmalted grain into particles around the width of a hair, within minutes. They broke down more of the barley’s starch into brewable sugars, at temperatures 35 degrees cooler, while eliminating the need to wash the grain. The cavitation reduced volatile gases, lowered gluten by ripping the protein apart, and sterilized wort without boiling by perforating microbes’ cell walls. Cavibeer produced more libations with less waste while consuming 40 percent less energy.
For Mancosky, on the other hand, the eureka moment came when a friend urged him to see if Hydro Dynamics’ cavitation system could improve the extraction of compounds from hops. “I bought some hops, and made batches of hop tea,” he recalls. “The one made with our technology was considerably darker. So, I knew there was promise.”
Over a century after being accidentally observed by torpedo boat engineers, we still can’t explain many of cavitation’s basic properties. Physicists still aren’t sure how these bubbles get so hot, though some have wondered whether they could warm up enough to achieve the nuclear fusion reaction that gives the hydrogen bomb its destructive power. Sonoluminescence — when the bubble generates a flash of light lasting trillionths of a second — remains a mystery after 80 years of research.
Most people’s point of reference for cavitation isn’t its interesting history or mysterious physical properties, but the creatures that mastered it millions of years ago: mantis and pistol shrimp. And most wouldn’t have that reference if it weren’t for an ode to the mantis shrimp written by web comic Matthew Inman going viral four years ago. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped scientists from applying cavitation’s destructive potential to create new ways to brew and hop beer.
In fact, Hydro Dynamics also found that cavitation can be used to age liquor and wine — and has just announced a partnership with a wine label. It turns out that the energetic collapse of bubbles catalyzes so-called aging reactions. Cavitation also extracts more flavors from added-in charred wood chips in a fast-forwarded equivalent to barrel-aging. And by forcing more liquid through the wood’s outer char layer, it effectively used the chips as carbon filters that capture unwanted impurities.
But cavitation can’t do everything. One company, Cavitation Technologies, recently unveiled a tabletop wine-aging system. Yet, while cavitation can accelerate aging reactions, brewing bubble for a few minutes, without any other added flavor like wood chips, won’t make a mediocre wine top-shelf.
Both Cavitation Technologies and Cavibeer have also boasted about their cavitation’s ability to filter out toxins like methanol and butanol, or boost concentrations of health compounds like prenylflavonoids (such as xanthohumol) from hops. But much like fortifying cornflakes with vitamins, a minor adjustment of nutrients does not a healthy drink make.
Then again, why worry about what cavitation can’t yet guarantee? If we can’t drink to our health, we can toast the ingenuity that turned nature’s violent implosions into explosive brews.