After all: are brewing technologies political?

E&T on whether technology and politics are compatible.

Is technology apolitical in its essence? Is it always above (or below) political dogmas, party platforms and social systems?

It is tempting to answer these questions in the affirmative. Yet reality is often more complicated than its widely accepted patterns and stereotypes. Suffice it is to remember the recent calls by some UK newspapers to boycott the new iPad due to the allegedly appalling conditions of the Chinese workers who manufacture it - an obvious example of politics trying to interfere with technology.

This reminds me of another real-life story that coincidentally has a lot (if not everything) to do with this issue's main theme - cooling. Or, to be more precise, with a popular cooling and mildly alcoholic drink, known in the English-speaking world as 'beer' and in some other parts of the globe, including Russia and the Czech Republic, where the story was set, as 'pivo', or even - lovingly - 'pivechko' ('little beer').

I could not believe my eyes: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the great leader and teacher of workers, peasants and executioners of all countries, was standing in front of me in the office of the Staropramen brewery in the central Prague area of Smichov. He was wearing his famous polka-dot tie, and his pseudo-intellectual 'social-democratic' goatee trembled slightly when he spoke.

'The communists wanted to keep the Czech people quiet by offering them cheap beer,' he was saying. 'Beer was highly politicized. It was the country's main showcase, like ballet in Russia, and we never had shortages of it.'

Let me reassure you, my meeting with Lenin - who had then been dead for over 70 years (although in the Soviet Union we were always told that he was eternally alive and was always with us - hence the joke about triple marital bed) - was not the result of several mugs of strong Kozel beer. Dr Pavel Ferkl, the ageing former chief brewer of Staropramen, and now an adviser to the general manager, was the spitting image of Lenin. He could have earned heaps of money by simply wandering around Moscow calling for the overthrow of the non-existing monarchy or by repeating Lenin's famous truism that communism was Soviet power plus electrification (or was it electrocution?) of the whole country. When he was showing me around the brewery, I half-expected him to raise his hand suddenly and cry out in a high-pitched, burred voice (Lenin could not pronounce 'r' and had to say 'g' instead), 'Comgades! The ggeat ghevolution has happened! Hoogay!!'

Except for this striking resemblance, there was not much in common between the first Soviet dictator, who had never had a proper job, and Prague's most respected beer expert, who had worked all his life at Staropramen and was also professor of brewing at the Prague School of Food Technology, a member of the American Master Brewers Association, and so on. So high was Dr Ferkl's brewing authority, that the communist government used to send him to the West as the ultimate ambassador of Czech beer. Now the West had come to him, and Staropramen, the largest brewery in Prague, was partly owned by Bass, a British brewing giant.

'There are two secrets of Czech beer's success: ingredients - hops, barley and water, which are the best in the world; and tradition,' Dr Ferkl said, as we passed by a fermentation tank. Flakes of greyish cotton-like foam in it did not look very appetising: they reminded me of the melting dirt-ridden Moscow snowdrifts at the end of March. 'Books on technology of brewing have been written here since the 16th century.'

In the next room stood four conical copper tanks, the so-called brew-kettles in which the actual brewing process took place. These precious old tanks - the pride of the brewery - were temporarily buried in Staropramen's spacious courtyard during the German occupation and thus survived the Second World War.

I was interested to see that the making of beer was not unlike the making of filter coffee: the mixture of malted grain and water was placed in vessels with sieve-like false bottoms through which the juices of the malt ran prior to being aromatised with hops, boiled and fermented.

'Our brewing technology remained unchanged for centuries,' Dr Ferkl continued. 'Communists did not intervene in technological matters, they only turned the Czech beer industry into a centralised military-type organisation and used it as a source of revenue. This is why Czech beer was less exposed to modernisation than German or American which, in itself, was not so bad.'

Dr Ferkl was contemptuous of the very concept of canned beer, which, he asserted, had distorted the whole face of beer-making. He told me with pride that Czech beer was produced exclusively in returnable bottles, and it had become a popular Czech pastime to take crates of empty bottles back to shops on Saturdays. It was illegal for the shops not to accept the bottles.

From the colourful Staropramen brochure, I deduced that one of the results of the brewery's westernisation was that it now produced a 'politically correct' diabetic beer with reduced sugar and protein. But no canned beer still!

The main thing I grasped from my visit to Prague's largest brewery, therefore, was that the 'velvet revolution' and the resulting change of the country's political system hadn't radically altered the technologies and the very nature of the Czech beer industry: the packaging and the labelling might have improved but the taste remained largely the same.

At the end of the tour, Dr Ferkl confided in me that, despite being the professor of brewing, he wasn't a beer-drinker himself. I didn't see a huge contradiction there: one doesn't have to live on the Moon to be a professor of astronomy'

So, do poltics and technology mix - like malted grain and water inside a copper tank? Or do they always stay separate - like vodka and tomato juice in a glass of Bloody Mary?

A difficult question, which (as we used to say in Russia) cannot be answered without half-a-litre of vodka, or in this Czech case - without a pint of beer.

I would be interested to hear your opinions. Do send your thoughts to vvitaliev@theiet.org.

In the meantime, another round of Staropramen, please!

Vitali Vitaliev is features editor of E&T. His latest book, 'Life as a Literary Device', is out and available in book shops and online

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