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Scientific Reasons to Respect Light Beer

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This story was written by Jed Lipinski, with photography by Tim Soter, and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Download our new iPad app and get a free issue!

Light beer may be easy to drink, but it's hard to make. Here's why the weakest brews deserve more applause.

On a hot summer night in Manhattan, the young beer connoisseurs were talking shop inside Good Beer NYC, a craft-beer store on East Ninth Street, when the conversation turned to light beer. The consensus: Three of the top-sellers in America—Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite—were barely worth the glass they're bottled in.

"I used to hate beer because I thought it all tasted like Natural Light," said Jennifer Dickey, the store manager, who was leaning against a shelf of Stone Brewing's Imperial Russian Stout.

Al Alvarez, an accountant who spent his formative beer-drinking years in Germany, thanked God that even the diviest American bars carry Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Melissa Brandt, another Good Beer employee, chimed in. She'd recently bought her father a case of craft beer but couldn't convert him. Once he'd polished off the gift, he retreated to his basement kegerator full of Bud Light.

"It was a sad moment," she said.

It's common to disparage light beers. As craft beers have elbowed their way into American refrigerators and taps, light beers have become punch lines. What few drinkers know, however, is that quality light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. The thin flavor means there's little to mask defects in the more than 800 chemical compounds within. As Kyler Serfass, manager of the home-brew supply shop Brooklyn Homebrew, told me, "Light beer is a brewer's beer. It may be bland, but it's really tough to do." Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process in hundreds of factories, ensuring that every pour from every brewery tastes exactly the same. Staring at a bottle, it's staggering to consider the effort that goes into producing each ounce of the straw-colored liquid. But perhaps the most impressive thing about light beer isn't the time needed or the craftsmanship or even the consistency, but how many lives the beverage has saved.

Before it was light beer, it was "small beer." A popular drink in late-medieval Europe and colonial America, small beer was necessary for certain civilizations to grow. In the days before Brita filters, beer staved off disease and dehydration by packing just enough alcohol to kill off pathogens found in drinking water. Kids drank it. George Washington brewed it. Ben Franklin guzzled it for breakfast. Populations grew. Later, during Prohibition, some breweries stayed afloat by selling a similar concoction—"near beers" or malt beverages that contained less than 0.5 percent alcohol, often described as "light." But it wasn't until 1967 that Joseph L. Owades, a biochemist for Rheingold Breweries in Brooklyn, produced a variation that would change the fate of the drink and make him the "Father of Light Beer." His invention: Gablinger's Diet Beer.

Owades's drink hoped to reverse a trend he'd noticed—people had stopped drinking beer to avoid gaining weight. To reduce the brew's calorie count, Owades employed an enzyme that broke down starches found in malt, leaving behind fewer carbohydrates. While Gablinger's Diet Beer was ahead of its time, Rheingold's marketing was not. The beer company pushed Gablinger's as a healthier alternative to traditional beer. But the poorly conceived ads featuring "a man with the girth of a sumo wrestler" devouring a plate of spaghetti, then washing it down with a diet beer, didn't appeal to the weight-conscious women it supposedly targeted. The beverage flopped.

With Rheingold's consent, Owades gave his recipe to Chicago's Meister Brau brewery, which released the equally unsuccessful Meister Brau Lite. But when Miller Brewing Company acquired Meister Brau in the early '70s, it sensed an opportunity. Miller tweaked the formula and repackaged the brand as "Lite Beer from Miller." The timing was fortuitous. Miller Lite, as it became known, debuted just in time to catch a new wave of "healthier" products, including diet soda and low-tar cigarettes.

To make a greater dent in the market, Miller would need to appeal to men. Backslapping pro-football heroes like Bubba Smith, John Madden, and Dick Butkus were recruited to shill for the brand. But the true stroke of genius was the "Tastes great! Less filling!" commercial featuring the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. The ad managed to stress both flavor and lightness, suggesting that Miller Lite wasn't meant for weight loss, but instead to be consumed in large quantities.

By 1978, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Schlitz were all frantically marketing their own light beers to challenge Miller Lite's dominance. At the height of the rivalry, Miller's president, John A. Murphy, allegedly kept a voodoo doll of August Busch III (then president of Anheuser-Busch) in his office. It didn't help. After years of absurdly expensive marketing, Bud Light finally surpassed Miller Lite in annual sales in 1997. By 2004, Bud Light had strengthened its hold, becoming the true King of Beers as it overtook Budweiser. It has remained the top-selling beer in the U.S. ever since.

Most beer drinkers will tell you that light beers contain a relatively low alcohol percentage and number of calories. Bud is the real beer, Bud Light is the low-cal version. But there's a disagreement among brewers about what truly qualifies as a light beer. Peter Kraemer, a fifth-generation brewmaster and head of brewing for Anheuser-Busch InBev in St. Louis, Mo., is just the man to clear up this question. Kraemer, 46, holds a degree in chemical engineering and spent years apprenticing under August Busch III himself. All brewmasters at Anheuser-Busch undergo an extensive apprenticeship that exposes them to the entire supply chain and enables them to hone their beer-tasting skills. Today, he's responsible for making sure that every can, bottle, and glass of Bud Light in North America tastes exactly the same.

Kraemer believes that "light beer" has lost all meaning over the years. Budweiser and Bud Light are both lagers, which require an extended fermentation cycle called lagering, during which inactive yeasts are removed to allow still-active yeasts to do their job. Since Budweiser and Bud Light consist of the same ingredients (carbon-filtered water, barley malt, rice, hops, lager yeast) and require around 27 days of fermentation, Kraemer considers them both light beers.

So what's the difference? For the last 30 years, Anheuser-Busch has kept its own private barley-breeding facilities, where it breeds for a specific range of proteins strong enough to withstand the extreme conditions necessary to brew light beer. Today, two strains thrive there: two-row and six-row barley. The six-row has a higher enzyme content, which allows it to more easily convert starch into sugar, and it's been specifically designed for Budweiser and Bud Light. Where the beers truly truly differ is in the brewing process, which begins with mashing. For Budweiser and Bud Light, barley is combined with water and rice—an "adjunct" that lightens the body and mouthfeel. They're poured into a stainless-steel mashing vessel and heated. Mashing converts the starch in these grains into sugar. But whereas Budweiser is mashed for 30 minutes, Bud Light is mashed for three to four hours, allowing more starches to be converted to sugar and resulting in a lighter flavor.

Once the mashing is complete, the resulting liquid, wort, is boiled at 212°F inside a massive brew kettle. Peering into one, at Anheuser-Busch's sprawling Newark brewery, is like staring into the crater of a small volcano. When brewing any beer, if the kettle isn't perfectly clean—if there's even a trace of wort from the previous brew baked onto the kettle's interior, say—it will change the taste and ruin the drinkability. To produce beer at the stunning volume the big three do and to keep the flavors as consistent as they do, the pristine cleansing of each kettle is of utmost importance.

That's not the hardest part, though. The fermentation process is what truly separates the competition. Light beer relies on a temperamental yeast that needs to be activated, stored, and monitored at precise temperatures to yield the proper flavor. At the Newark Brewery, the lager yeast is stored at 32°F when it's not in use, slowing down the yeast's metabolism to near zero. "We basically put the yeast to sleep, so it doesn't freak out," says Tiago Darocha, the plant's general manager. When the yeast emerges from hibernation, it's given a specific mission. At all 137 Anheuser-Busch breweries around the globe, Budweiser and Bud Light undergo exactly five and a half days of primary fermentation and 21 days of lagering, all at 50°F, plus or minus one degree. Any warmer and the beer could end up thick and flabby, instead of "clean, crisp, and fresh."

That month of storage is essential to the beer's success, and trying to replicate these conditions is extraordinarily difficult for most home brewers. For Brooklyn Homebrew's Kyler Serfass, it took three months of experimentation to crack the code using an old refrigerator he discovered in the basement of his apartment building. "When I saw that fridge, it was like a light shone down from heaven," he said. Serfass made only two cases' worth of his "Budweiser clone," but the duplication was considered such an achievement that it won him a gold medal at this year's Homebrew Alley competition, held at the Brooklyn Brewery.

While brewing two cases of quality light beer is nothing to scoff at, it's a universe apart from shipping the roughly 18 million barrels a year that Budweiser and Coors Light do. "There are things you can't measure that nonetheless impact the taste of a light beer," Kraemer said, adding that certain taste compounds are present in just a few parts per trillion. To assure quality, all of Anheuser-Busch's 137 senior brew-masters taste the raw ingredients—including the water—at every stage of the brewing process. If a brewmaster samples beer from a lagering tank at the end of its aging process and detects that the beer has not fully matured, he can dictate that the tank age for an extra day or two before the beer is filtered and packaged. This level of precision exerted over so many millions of barrels of beer is stunning. And while it may not convince you to pull a cheap six-pack off the shelf, it should help you see the brew in a new light.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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