Here's a story, maybe apocryphal, about an episode in the life of a young Louis Pasteur. It marks his first dip into the world of microorganisms. And it's about how he saved the people of Lille from living without booze.

It was the mid-1800s, and just for a change the British and the French hated each other. The latest cause for enmity was the British blockade of the West Indies. This deprived the French of sugar, and therefore deprived them of their usual method of making alcohol. Ever resourceful, instead of cane sugar they used beet sugar, but one producer, in the Lille region of France, hit a snag. One of his fermenting tanks stopped producing alcohol and started producing a mildly sour brew that no one could get drunk on.

Advertisement

This would not stand. The man went to a local expert โ€” a man who had made his name examining small things by how they interacted with polarized light. The man was Louis Pasteur. He took a look, under the microscope at the products from both tanks. The tank that produced alcohol had nice fat round things in it. The tank that produced acid, know to Pasteur as lactic acid, had ugly dark rods in it.

When he transferred a sample of each batch to a clean set of ingredients, he got another alcohol-filled cup of round things, and an acid-filled cup of oblong things. By some process, chemical, biological, or otherwise, the little things were making more of themselves. They weren't, however, able to spontaneously appear in batches of booze they hadn't had contact with. Pasteur recommended that the distiller drain the tank, clean it, and start again. Pasteur became โ€” in this legend โ€” the hero of Lille, before going on to be the hero of the world with his discoveries about microbial life.

So get some beet-sugar alcohol and raise a glass to Louis Pasteur.

Top Image: Public Domain, Masur

[Source: Proof: The Science of Booze]

Advertisement