First principles

I picked up a textbook about fermentation, called Principles of Fermentation Technology (Stanbury and Whitaker 1984). The book has a Third Edition out now, but that was a little too rich for my blood, so I picked up a copy of the first edition. I’d love to compare the language of this book to the language of more recent editions and to other textbooks out there, but even on first reading, I’m learning a lot.

The first thing I’ve learned helps confirm something about the way I’ve framed this project. I’m approaching fermentation as a multiple process (in Annemarie Mol’s [2002] sense of that word), different at different sites. Almost immediately, the book confirms that even fermentation’s definition is multiple and fluid:

“The production of alcohol by the action of yeast on malt or fruit extracts ha been carried out on a large scale for very many years and was the first ‘industrial’ process for the production of a microbial metabolite. Thus, industrial microbiologists have extended the term fermentation to describe any process for the production of product by the mass culture of a micro-organism” (Stanbury and Whitaker 1984:1).

It strikes me that even fermentation’s scientized definition defers to its older forms. This book breaks the development of fermentation technology into five different periods, beginning with early beer production (“Pre-1900”) and ending with the use of genetic engineering techniques to generate new end products (“1979-date”). I’m interested in things that might seem to fit neatly into these first and last periods, but presenting it this way makes it seem as though fermentation technology is a unidirectional process, as if beer fermentation hasn’t continued to change and evolve even as bioengineers and others put fermentation to new uses.

In general, the authors adopt this progress narrative, seemingly characterizing the changes in fermentation technology as a process of ever-increasing scale, control, and efficiency. They note that “although beer was brewed by the ancient Egyptians, the first true large-scale breweries date from the early 1700s…. Even some process control was attempted in these early breweries” (Stanbury and Whitaker 1984:5). In addition to putting alcohol production as one of the main products of “Pre-1900” fermentation (alongside vinegar), they note that quality control was “virtually nil” (1984:6).

Speaking of quality control, the authors emphasize the potential for contamination, emphasizing the importance of standardization, sterilization, and computer use in “minimizing the possibility of human error” (Stanbury and Whitaker 1984:8) (“Human error”? Why not “microbial agency”?) .

Finally, for my purposes, the double meanings of the word culture always produce interesting effects. In this case, the authors write that “before a fermentaion process is established a producer organism has to be isolated,  modified such that it produces the desired product in commercial quantities, its cultural requirements determined and the plant designed accordingly” (Stanbury and Whitaker 1984:8-9). One of science studies’ efforts has been to show that these cultures—the extent of the social networks of science (see Latour 1987)—goes far beyond he composition of a nutrient medium. Elsewhere, the authors discuss the ways in which the facilities and instruments of fermentation changed alongside the process’ evolving capabilities. I’m looking to expand this even further, to look at how organizing around fermentative production demands meeting other kinds of “cultural requirements”—in other words, how fermentation changes social worlds.

I look forward to continuing to flip through this book and to learn more about the perspectives and approaches of this side of fermentation technology and to writing more as I do.


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