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Monkeys versus robots

Automated brewing, computers and sweaty animals, together in the brewhouse.
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shutterstock_263944451[TAKES LONG GULP OF BEER. LOOKS THOUGHTFUL.]

So there was a comic book that came out about 16 years ago titled “Monkey Versus Robot.” It’s about monkeys, you see, and robots. And they fight each other, and nobody wins.

The comic was by cartoonist James Kochalka. These days you don’t need to find it in your local bookstore (support your local bookstore); you can read it on your phone or other doodad.

Kochalka also had a rock band called James Kochalka Superstar. They played a song about the comic, and there was a video. I recommend you play it loud there, in your cubicle.

Now, you can read the comic as pure nonsense. Or, you can read it as allegory—about the encroachment of cold technology on our warmer, fun-loving, primal nature. Or could it be the tension between science and art?

“DIRTY FLESH WILL SURRENDER TO METAL FUTURITY,” the Mother machine declares.

So, monkeys and robots have been on my mind. Not because of comics, but because of beer.

Who’s making our beer, how, and with which appendages and apparatus? Does the answer to that question affect how much we enjoy it?

I’ll tell you who started this: It was Swiss beer blog Bierversuche—Christian and Marcel, damn them—who asked Mikkel Borg Bjergsø about his comfort with allowing others to brew Mikkeller beers. He commissions virtually all of them from other breweries, often in other countries, and his presence is not required.

Part of Bjergsø’s answer: “I know this sounds arrogant and might not be right, but I always say you can train a monkey to brew a beer.”

“Or program a robot?” the blog asked.

“Exactly,” Bjergsø said. “Some people and brewers think that you make the least good beer when it is computerized, but I think that’s complete bullshit.”

Certainly recipe counts for a lot. Recently I asked another beer commissioner, Sebastian Sauer of Freigeist in Germany, about where he had his historically inspired beers made. When he told me (answer: the Vormann brewery near Dortmund), I asked how involved he was with the brewing. Was it very hands-on?

“It’s an automatical installation,” he said, “so ‘brewing’ means pushing a few buttons. So we discussed everything and entered it into the system.”

Naturally this led to the usual jokes about the rise of the machines. I’m unclear on how the monkeys fit into this, but I do know that monkeys throw their own turds for laughs and I don’t want them near my beverages.

The question of automation—to what degree?—is relevant to brewing companies that tout art and workmanship but also want to sell the most consistent product possible. It also might be relevant to anyone who pays a bit extra for those beers, instead of “more industrial” products coming from supposedly soulless high-tech megaplants.

So a recent Twitter discussion caught my eye, between Boulevard brewer-spokesman Jeremy Danner and a self-described “craftbeer curmudgeon” with the handle @L_Staff. The latter compared it to the manufacturer of clothes.

“You can design a suit by hand, but replication by computers that control machines that cut and sew is no longer craftmanship,” @L_Staff wrote. He later added, “At some point the craft is removed as automation takes over. Has to be more than just a recipe and a program, no?”

“Automation and cool gear enable brewers to control every minute detail of the process resulting in killer execution,” Danner replied.

Later—preoccupied, as I said, by monkeys and robots—I followed up with Danner. He elaborated with an anecdote:

“The first time I showed my father around Boulevard, he took note of the computers and fancy equipment and said something to the effect of, ‘Interesting. You make beer with computers.’ I replied, ‘No, we make beer with our brains and our backs, but we use the computers and equipment as tools.’”

“When I first came to Boulevard, I was mistaken in that the technology eliminates some of the romance inherent in doing every single step by hand without the aid of computers,” he added, “But we’re able to exercise such precise control over every parameter that we can brew beer that’s incredibly accurate to our intent. The best brewers make the best use of the best technology to make the best beer.”

Oh, one more thing. As we recently wrote here at DRAFT, the amazing nerds at MIT are teaching robots how to serve us beers in crowded bars. No word on whether they will learn how to grow beards and look surly.

What’s next, will the robots drink for us?

I don’t know. But I’d watch out for those monkeys.

[LEANS BACK. COVERS GLASS WITH A DECKEL.]

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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One Comment

  • Kevin Pratt says:

    Part of that Twitter discussion included a latent sentiment that technology somehow made it less authentic. This is at odds with history, since brewers have been eager first adopters of technology. Steam, refrigeration, hydrometers, germ theory. Heck, even Porters & Pilsners are the direct result of new technology in their time. Why not computers?

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