Last week, I found out about the Tumblr blog F No, Chemical Free with images of products that supposedly contain no chemicals at all.It reminded me of a story from undergrad about beer chemistry. It’s not my story, but I’ll have to retell
It reminded me of a story from undergrad. It’s not my story, but I’ll have to retell it, because the original sources I found as reference (two pdfs of chemistry student magazines from ten years ago) were in Dutch.
Two students were having a beer in the pub on a Saturday night, when they spotted a curious disclaimer on a bottle of Belgian beer (Duvel). The label claimed to guarantee that the beer contained no “chemical products”. Clearly that wasn’t true. The beer was also on the list of beers to be served at the annual Belgian Beer Night of the chemistry students’ society, but could they serve such a chemically unfriendly beer? The students wrote an official letter to the Duvel headquarters, in which they explained that beer was the product of biochemical processes. The letter was quite cheeky, suggesting that perhaps the label was a misprint, and that it should have read “with chemical products”, or that maybe it wasn’t beer after all. But they also made the suggestion to replace the label with “brewed with natural products” since that seemed to be what the company was aiming for.
Duvel wrote a letter back! They explained their (synthetic) interpretation of “chemical”, emphasizing their views by stating “beer is not coke!”, and admitted that the “natural products” version of the label had at some point also been discussed.
But the story didn’t end there. In the next issue of the chemistry students magazine we got an update: At a subsequent visit to the pub, one of the students had spotted a new label on the Duvel beer! It no longer claimed to be free of chemicals, but it now said that it was brewed according to an original recipe, with refermentation in the bottle.
I love this story. Even if the letter may not have been the driving force to update the label, the fact that they had an actual conversation about the chemical-free claim on the label makes me happy. I also like that the company took a letter from undergrad students seriously. And of course they’re not undergrads anymore: One of the letter’s authors is currently assistant professor at Princeton, and if I managed to track down the other correctly in Google, he now appears to work in chemical industry in Switzerland after finishing a postdoc. Writing letters to breweries about misuse of the word “chemical” does seem to be a good start to a scientific career.