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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The best thing I have ever read about alcohol - and possibly anything else

I hate the patronising language of social media clickbait because it debases what were once perfectly good terms and insults the intelligence of its audience. But just for once, I wish I was writing for one of those wanky clickbait sites because my headline could only be 'This fruit fly drank some booze. You will not BELIEVE what happened next!'

I seem to be writing three new books simultaneously. I'll explain how, why and what in a later post. But two of these books - one of them being What Are You Drinking, my new crowdfunded book with ace publishers Unbound - are taking me onto a bit of nature writing. It's quite the thing right now, just like travel writing was around the time I did Three Sheets to the Wind. That's the thing about beer - write about it, and you can turn it into writing about whatever you want. You can be a comedian or a stocktaker, a philosopher or a troll.

Leavening a bit of nature writing into my work feels like a nice thing to do at this point. I was never big on science at school. I feel like a deeper analysis of the way things like yeast and malting work is the next step in my own personal education about beer. And if I can write about it in a non-nerdy, not-too-technical way, it might also appeal to a broader, mainstream, curious beer audience.

On top of that, there's also the personal journey that accompanies and dictates any book. Right now, as I spend most of my waking hours looking at screens, I find myself increasingly drawn to the natural world as some kind of counter-balancing weight to keep my sanity level. I just spent the whole weekend gardening and baking bread, and slept better, and felt happier, than I have in months working at the screen.

Both the personal and professional have led me to this book, by my new favourite author:




I seriously believe this may be one of the most important food and drink books of the last fifty years. Its treasures are too many for me to go into here. I'm boring everyone I speak to about how it has changed my life - or at least, endorsed and spurred on many of the changes I was already trying to make to my life. You like beer, right? And proper barbecue? And sourdough bread? And good cheese? Of course you do. And it's like he looked into your mind and conceived this book to appeal to you, and only you - and, of course, everyone else like you.

But anyway, never mind the life-changing lessons, the astonishing insights and inspiration. What I want to write about here is a footnote on page 374 that took me ten minutes to find when I went back to check it. That's how good this book is: the most astonishing fact it contains can be thrown away in a hidden footnote.

It's in a section where Pollan is writing in praise of alcohol and its effects. He does so in a calm and rational, yet warm and engaging manner, and succeeds in making it seem obvious that alcohol is - on balance - an overwhelming boon to society in a way I wish I could but can't stay calm enough to do.

He talks about the many species of animal that actively seek out alcohol and enjoy the benefits of intoxication. The footnote concerns Drosophila Melanogasta, otherwise known as the common fruit fly, or vinegar fly.

I've been reading more about it, and the male Drosphila Melanogasta has an endearing (to an extent) quirk. When it reaches maturity, it tries to mate with anything it can. It tries to court other completely incompatible species of insect, other males of its own species, even, rather dodgily, sexually immature female fruit flies. It reminds me of a hapless insect Sid the Sexist from Viz magazine, with absolutely no idea of how to pull.

But as it gets rebuffed, it seemingly learns. Progressively, it figures out what is and is not compatible, and spends less and less time on lost causes, smartening up its act, until it finally succeeds with an appropriate partner. Scientists studying fruit flies are very excited by what seems like evidence of learning and modifying behaviour in this tiny animal rather than simple blind instinct.

But that's not the brilliant bit that Michael Pollan wrote about.

Again, like Sid the Sexist, fruit flies also love alcohol. as you will appreciate if you've ever had a glass of beer outdoors. Do they think it helps their pulling technique? Scientists have yet to determine that.

But it does help keep them alive.

Drosophila Melanogasta suffers from having a tiny parasitic wasp that lives in its stomach. Yes, you read that correctly. I know a fruit fly is tiny. But it has an even tinier wasp that can get into its stomach.

If it stays there, the wasp will kill the fruit fly. So the fruit fly drinks alcohol, which it enjoys, and finds non-fatal. But it's a different story for the tiny parasitic wasp. It can't cope with its drink at all. When the fruit fly drinks, the booze kills the tiny wasp in its gut... by making it violently shit out its insides through its arse.

This incredible discovery - which surely ranks alongside the discovery of penicillin or the the atom - was made by Neil F Milan et al, and written up in a paper called "Alcohol Consumption as Self-Medication against Blood-Borne Parasites in the Fruit Fly," published in a journal called Current Biology, vol 22 no.6, published in 2012.

Congratulations sir. The drinking world salutes you. And bravo, Drosophila Melanogasta. I will never swat you away from my pint again.

3 comments:

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

It’s a brilliant book, which suggested to me that the best books written about food and booze are the ones that approach it polymathically, bringing in (and bridging) all manner of strands of knowledge that somehow link everything together. Beer exists as one strand within the culture of gastronomy in the same way that plainsong, poetry and Proust co-exist within their own particular cultural universe. But then we know that didn’t we.

mentaldental said...

I know it sounds made up but here is the article:

http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0960982212000759/1-s2.0-S0960982212000759-main.pdf?_tid=dbdbb26c-e909-11e4-b7bf-00000aab0f6c&acdnat=1429719108_18460b24c3b8b54fa91a5d214e0d34d6

Martyn Cornell said...

The old joke about "time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana" clearly needs an updating. I suggest "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a Banana Bread Beer from Wells."