Etudes sur le Vin


This is part 3 in a series. You can read part 2 here.

The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s in countries like Germany and England led to rapid advancements in medicine.

It also led to a greater demand for medical solutions to issues related to overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and malnutrition caused by huge numbers of people leaving the countryside and moving into crowded, squalid cities.

And there is one man who towers over the history of 19th-century medicine like no other – Louis Pasteur. He and others like Robert Koch played a key role in the events that have led up to our current tragedy.

Lab Rat

Today, most probably think of Pasteur in regards to his immunology work, but the truth is that his real skill was as a chemist.

And just like Edward Jenner before him, Pasteur was a righteous asshole.

To give you but one example, in 1858, when Pasteur was the science director at Paris’s most prestigious high school, he was such a bully that 73 out of 80 of his students quit.

You can’t have your meat, if you don’t eat your pudding!

But it was in 1857, the year before he got the job at the school that he made one of his most important breakthroughs.

Sour Grapes

In 1857, Pasteur was still working as a chemist at the University of Lille in France.

A local distillery then contacted Pasteur to do some consultation work because they were having a unique problem. Some of the alcohol that they were making had gone unexpectedly sour.

Try as they might, the distillery just couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Using his observations, Pasteur figured out that some of the fermented grain was being converted into lactic acid instead of alcohol.

Damn you, blasted bacteria!

Essentially, yeast is a microorganism that converts sugar molecules into alcohol while different microorganisms (bacteria) convert sugar molecules into lactic acid, which just like the name suggests, tastes sour on our tongue.

Pasteur concluded that the distillery’s problem was being caused by an “infection” of lactic acid-producing bacteria, and once they’d cleaned and sterilized their equipment, the problem would go away.

The distiller was overjoyed by Pasteur’s discovery, but many of Pasteur’s scientist colleagues were not. Pasteur’s lactic acid theory was directly in contradiction to a much more famous chemist in Paris named Justus von Liebig.

As such, Pasteur became extremely defensive and grew increasingly competitive with his fellow scientists, something that led to several disasters later on his career, as we shall see further on.

Duke Nuke’em

After solving the distillery’s problem, Pasteur then took his knowledge about what was causing lactic fermentation and applied it to (cow’s) milk.

As most people know, fresh milk that starts out sweet will eventually become sour. In English, people say “rancid” or “gone off”, but in languages like Romanian, the word used is “ruined.”

Whatever word you use, the reason that milk goes sour is that bacteria have converted the sugar in the milk into lactic acid.

What Pasteur didn’t know is that all milk, including human breastmilk and cow’s milk, naturally contains bacteria that produce lactic acid. This ignorance was a critically important mistake as we shall soon see.

Pasteur then reasoned that, if the lactic acid-producing bacteria could somehow be killed, the milk would stay sweet (unspoiled).

As such, he test-cooked milk at various temperatures until he discovered the right one for “nuking” bacteria. This was and is the process known as “pasteurization.”

And pasteurization works, obviously. I’ve seen cartons of milk last six months or more after being pasteurized at ultra-high temperatures.

Today, except for some very rare instances, all the milk, fruit juice, beer, and canned vegetables sold in grocery stores has been pasteurized.

Sick Milk

Pasteur didn’t really give a shit about milk, though. His focus was more on wine and beer, so it took a few years for other chemists to reproduce his findings.

Fortunately, the discovery of the pasteurization process came right in the nick of time for the bedraggled denizens of the city slums of the Industrial Revolution.

Distilleries like the one in Paris that Pasteur had helped were built in huge numbers during the 1800s. Taking advantage of the economies of scale, they were often big factories that churned out thousands of liters of beer and gin every day.

Beer and spirits are made by fermenting grain and then cooking it. After that, the liquid gets strained off, and what’s left is known as “mash,” a kind of nasty, mushy porridge.

For the distilleries, the mash was a problem because it was a waste product. Eventually, however, someone came up with the genius idea of building cow barns underneath the distillery.

The mash could then be pushed down holes for the cows in the basement to eat.

Unfortunately for the cows, living in a damp, dark, underground space and eating a diet of mushy porridge was not conducive to their health.

And so a lot of the milk that they produced became infected with dangerous bacteria which sickened or killed people on a regular basis.

Sterility is the Foundation of Health

Pasteur’s milk treatment solved the problem of infected milk simply and cheaply.

Instead of improving either the cow’s living conditions or the general health of the human population, which would be expensive and difficult, bacteria-laden milk could be rendered harmless simply by cooking it.

In the 19th century, remember, there was no regulation of food whatsoever, so milk was frequently contaminated. In addition, milk was often diluted with water (including polluted water), gelatin, plaster dust, or even formaldehyde.

Pasteurization didn’t solve these issues, but it did at least assure the consumer that nothing in the milk was left alive.

And pasteurization really did reduce the infectious disease rate of children and babies who were drinking commercially produced milk.

Thus, people started equating “sterilized” with “healthy.”

Wine’s Woes

Pasteur figured out the chemical process by which lactic fermentation occurs, but he never figured out why it occurs.

And that was a critical error, indeed, because Pasteur jumped to the conclusion that lactic acid fermentation was caused by hostile microorganisms who were invading the milk/beer/wine/etc. and infecting it.

In other words, the wine/beer/milk which had previously been “pure” had then been violated by a disease-laden microorganism.

Yes, disease.

Pasteur truly believed that wine and beer and milk went sour because it had gotten an “infectious disease.”

In fact, he wrote two whole books about this theory, called The Diseases of Wine and The Diseases of Beer.

Since Pasteur believe that wine was being “infected,” it’s easy to see why he also believed that killing the infecting organisms was a good thing.

Galaxy Drive

Pasteur was completely wrong about milk, of course, yet some countries like the United States stubbornly continue to adhere to his ludicrous ideas.

Bacteria that produce lactic acid aren’t infecting milk – they’re a natural part of milk.

Lactose, the sugar inside milk, is hard to digest for a lot of people, especially adults. But once the sugar has been partly processed through lactic fermentation, it’s a lot easier to digest.

This “partly fermented” milk process is still used today to make things like yogurt.

Furthermore, although not common in the west, fermented mare (female horse) milk plays an important role in some cultures.

In addition, lactic acid fermentation is fundamental to how milk gets converted into cheese.

Lactic acid fermentation also plays a critical role in a number of other traditional foods, especially pickled dishes like kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickled cucumbers.

Indeed, you can’t even make a truly pickled food unless the bacteria are present which convert sugar into lactic acid.  A pickle, literally, is a cucumber with all of its sugar converted into lactic acid.

Lastly, lactic acid fermentation plays a key role in preserving some salted meats.

In other words, a huge percentage of traditional food preservation techniques involves lactic acid fermentation.

And none of that food has been “infected.”

The Germ Theory of Disease

Pickles and cured ham and cheese are not “infected” by bacteria, and neither is fresh milk.

But once Pasteur became convinced that milk/beer/wine was being “infected” by microorganisms, it wasn’t difficult to jump to the conclusion that the same thing was going on with people.

The Germ Theory of Disease, visualized

Pasteur’s belief that people (just like wine and beer) start out as “pure” and then get “infected” by a hostile microorganism is known as The Germ Theory of Disease, and it is currently the reigning philosophy of modern Western medicine.

And it is this misguided theory that has been a principal contributor to the events leading up to World War III.

You can read Part 4 by clicking here.

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