Brewery: Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional S.A., La Paz, Bolivia
|Notice the mountains on the label. That should tell you something.|
I recently enjoyed a bottle of Paceña, the most popular beer in Bolivia. It wasn’t bad for a Crap National Lager. It was very light, but had a decent level of hoppiness for a pale lager, and was more than a few steps above watery. Not great, but not bad. I’m continuously impressed by the fact that tropical republics with no longstanding tradition of brewing beer consistently produce beers that are far better than Budweiser. Besides, with the gold foil, I knew it had to be pretty good.
But enough about the beer. It’s time for science!
|I'm the king of Bolivian Beer! It's not saying much, but look how awesome I am! This is also my third South American beer, and the third with this weird code on it (upper right of the photo).|
My investigation began when I read the peculiar list of ingredients on Paceña’s label: water, malt, selected cereal (Cap’n Crunch? Rice Krispies?), hops, antioxydant 224 (sic). What on earth is antioxydant 224, and do I really want it in my beer? In this case, why not? Antioxidants in general are good things to have in our body. When oxidation happens to chemicals in our body, it releases another type of chemical called a free radical, which can in turn result in cellular damage and degradation. Antioxidants jump in and bind with these oxidizing agents, preventing the whole thing from happening.
It’s like this: Mr. Oxidizer, a notorious rake and womanizer, is at your friend’s wedding, which is taking place inside a cell in your body. He badly wants to dance with Miss Important Cellular Chemicals, and the prim and proper Miss Important Cellular Chemicals finds Mr. Oxidizer very attractive. But if they were to cut a rug together, it would be SCANDALOUS, and a massive brawl would eventually break out, ruining the wedding and destroying the banquet hall (aka the cell). But Miss Antioxidant steps in at the last minute and dances with Mr. Oxidizer, and since Miss Antioxidant is kind of a tramp anyway, nobody cares, and everybody goes about their business. Later on, they are seen going into Mr. Oxidizer’s room together.
|Potassium metabisulfate. Doesn't she look kind of slutty?|
Antioxidant 224 is also known as potassium metabisulfite. It interferes with important oxidation functions in some strains of yeast, fungi and bacteria (yes, oxidation can be bad, but all life also needs it to happen to some extent). When used in beer it basically helps sterilize the product from unwanted little baddies. But most brewers take care of this when they boil the wort, or the mixture of malted grain and water. Boiling not only kills the baddies, but it helps the bitter flavors from the hops become activated. Win-win.
|This will almost certainly be the highest brewery I try for the blog. (Image from Google Earth).|
So why is Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional using the stuff to make Paceña? Because La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the location of the brewery, is located about 12,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, air pressure is significantly lower than it is at sea level, and as a result water boils at a significantly lower temperature (in this case about 189° F, as opposed to 212° F at sea level). This happens because air molecules are able to evaporate and escape their liquid state more easily, as they have a less dense shield of air pressing down on them from above. But microorganisms don’t care about air pressure. Their cell walls are ruptured only by sufficiently high temperatures. Hence the potassium metabisulfate to knock out any of the little critters that aren’t bothered by 189 degree boiling water. SCIENCE.
And while we’re at it, let me dispel the rumor that people metabolize alcohol any differently at higher elevations (which would allow you to get drunk faster). Yes, you’ll have less oxygen in your blood, especially if you’re a lowlander visiting a place like La Paz, but oxygen doesn’t play into the metabolism of alcohol, so you won’t be affected. People in La Paz use drugs (coca leaves) to help dispel the negative effects of living at high elevation, rather than embellishing them. So good for them: they can have a Paceña without getting trashed.