In 1767, Joseph Priestley, a curious minister and tinkerer, popped over to a brewery. He had lately been tinkering with air, and the brewers allowed him to tinker with the air above a batch of fermenting wort. Because the yeast were secretly* doing their work, the air above the wort was full of carbon dioxide. Priestly and the brewers knew this as “fixed air.”

Priestley must have been well-liked, because the brewers helped him conduct various experiments with their air for the next several years. In 1772, Priestley announced an exciting discovery: soda water, a.k.a. seltzer. He’d managed to carbonate a bowl of water just by letting it sit in the area just above a batch of fermenting wort, and found that his friends liked to drink it.

L0000729 Joseph Priestley's Chemical apparatus. 18th C
Joseph Priestley’s Chemical apparatus. 18th C Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 

Priestley is now most famous for his contributions to Chemistry, not for his frequent visits to a local brewery. That’s a shame, especially when you consider that those 8 a.m. college Chemistry classes would be much more popular if classes were held at local microbreweries. Who knows what serendipitous discoveries are being prevented?

*Yeast’s role in fermentation was not understood until 1857.


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