Beneath the dark figure of the Museum of Life and Science's trademark Mercury Redstone rocket, the floodlit zone in the parking lot looked like a military staging area.
But laughter carried through the night air, and not the normal high-pitched giggles of the museum's grade-school set. The deep guffaws and slightly oiled cackles were coming from the parents of those rugrats. "The Science of Beer" had taken over the building.
More than 600 suds-loving adults streamed to this Museum After Hours event to learn principles of chemistry, biology and physics through the amber, brown and stout lenses of beer. And, of course, to drink it. Some 13 area breweries dispensed their wares about the museum. One hardly had to turn around to find one's sample glass under a willing tap.
I started at the dumping station. "Dumping" is the process of rummaging dumps for collectibles—in this case, beer cans. Daniel Bjorklund, a dumper and, appropriately, a member of the museum's maintenance staff, explained how he uses oxalic acid to strip the rust off his findings, leaving the paint and can intact. Bjorklund's face lit up when I asked him to show me his single greatest dumping treasure: four Krueger cans culled from a Durham gulley. Crusty and unspectacular to the eye, these are nonetheless a beer can collector's greatest prize.
Richmond, Va.-based Krueger was the first brewer to market canned beer, in 1935. Initially, the company released it only in the low-consuming South to see if cans would flop or succeed, not wanting to embarrass itself in its bread-and-butter Northeastern market. During World War II, steel rationing scuttled canned beer, but it had caught on so well by then that the armed forces contracted with 35 brewers back home to make special canned beer for the soldiers overseas.
I had a brief discussion with another fascinated guest, Eric Forslin, about the regrettable era of pull tabs. "You had to be careful running around barefoot in the backyard," Forslin noted, grimacing at the curled shrapnel of sample tabs on a table, a memory lane we wanted to walk down with shoes on.
I fell into conversation with Christina Hardison of the Raleigh Homebrewers. While hawking handmade beer-sampling notebooks that would make the Moleskin people jealous, Hardison explained bittering and aromatic levels, prompting me to fill my nostrils with the smell of hops. While I recovered, Hardison described the mobile app she's developing based on her sampling notebooks. These people are serious about brewskies.
Soon I found myself by the museum's ant colony, waiting to smell Corona and Heineken skunking beneath fiber-optic spotlights, part of Malcolm Forbes' display on his "Mechanism for the Formation of the Lightstruck Flavor in Beer Revealed by Time-Resolved Electron Paramagnetic Resonance Spectroscopy."
Forbes' display crawled with chemical diagrams and expressions wherein "skunky thiol" (commonly called "that cat piss smell") forms in beer as light breaks hops compounds into free radicals that combine with sulfur sources. He told me things about Corona that could end Cinco de Mayo outright. So committed in its branding to the fatal clear bottle, Corona ships its wholesale product in boxes to protect it from the light, lengthens the bottle's neck to keep the drinker's nose farther from the skunk aroma and spreads the practice of popping a lime in the bottle mouth—all to cover up their already partially skunked beer. "The lime," Forbes smirked, "is like putting lemon on a fish."
Upstairs, I followed the sound of cheering to the Beer Pong Physics station. Jessica Bolton, a neuroscience and psychology graduate student at Duke, was using video to evaluate the arcs of people's pong tosses on a Vernier scale. "Generally speaking, more area under the arc is better," Bolton piped, pointing at a plotted curve onscreen.
Perhaps the most sober fellow in the joint was author Thomas R. Sinclair. Facing the museum's ominous crash-test dummy death machine upstairs, he did his best James Burke impression, telling of how beer and civilization are intimately connected. "Civilization is really driven by those who wanted to ferment grain all year round," Sinclair explained. A book he's co-written with his wife, Carol, traces this premise through 10 civilizations that all brewed something alcoholic from grain, although much of it wouldn't be recognizable today as beer. The introduction of hops within the last thousand years defines the gamut of what we quaff today.
When I pointed out that a bowl of aromatic hops seemed to be sitting out on every other table, Sinclair leaned over to note hops' checkered past. Its antibacterial properties allowed beer, brewed in open vats, to keep for three or four days instead of just one. So brewer monks could shlep it to cities to sell. The urban demand for beer grew, breweries popped up in the cities and the necessary grain supply contributed substantially to a boom in the rat population. Hops, as it turns out, have as much to do with the Black Plague as the bitter beer face.
What was left to learn about, at this point, but beer glasses? Fortunately J. Beckham, a UNC communications and cultural studies student and the homebrew supply manager at Fifth Season Gardening in Carrboro, had sample glasses of varying shapes. The same hefeweizen looked puny in a wine glass but sprang to life in a narrow vertical glass topped with an open ball shape. Retaining a head long after it had been poured, the beer in the vertical glass also glowed with color from a buttery yellow on top to nearly white at the bottom.
I finished my night, sample glass in hand, at the Roth Brewing table. Ryan Roth, self-proclaimed "CEO, brewer, toilet cleaner and whatever else needs to get done-er," pulled me an opaque, slightly syrupy cinnamon stout and smiled as he watched me savor it and purr. Akin to a dark, grown-up cinnamon disk candy, it was like drinking a night of sleep. Couldn't the museum add this to their permanent exhibits?
Correction (Oct. 4, 2011): J. Beckham is the homebrew supply manager (not proprietor) at Fifth Season Gardening in Carrboro.