From Artisans to Artificial Intelligence

Written by Pan Demetrakakes 

A few years ago, I wrote an article for a now-defunct publication about what makes a food or beverage “artisanal.” The accepted definition is that it implies a product made with some kind of specialized and long-established skill, but that just raises more questions. How far back in the process does the skill have to appear? Do you have to grow the grapes for the wine yourself? And is it enough to use a cherished recipe, or does it matter how you use it? Does everything need to be done by hand? What degree of automation is acceptable?

These questions came to mind when I attended the recent Smart Industry conference, put on by Putman Media, Food Processing’s parent. One of the presentations was by Tim Alexander, technology manager for Deschutes Brewery, one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S. (You can read more about his discussion here)

First of all, it may put some people off that a craft brewer even has a “technology manager.” Those people probably wouldn’t have liked Tim’s presentation. It was about how sophisticated collection and manipulation of historical data like specific gravity and “apparent degree of fermentation” can guide brewers, making sure they move batches from one step to the next at exactly the right time. This not only speeds up processing; it safeguards quality by making it easier to tell when a batch might be getting out of whack.

If you’d been late to Tim’s presentation and missed the introduction, you might have thought it was about computer chips or robots or some other high-tech marvel. It was full of charts with data clusters, formulas, and allusions to things like cloud-based databases. It’s not what a lot of people probably have in mind when they think of brewing beer, especially craft beer.

Tim actually dealt with that sentiment early in his presentation. I don’t recall his exact words, but after acknowledging that high-tech beer brewing might sound oxymoronic, he basically said that anything done with human ingenuity can and should be considered part of the brewing process.

You can extend that principle to the commercial production of any food or beverage. And I think that, within limits, you should. When technology makes a process more efficient, more consistent, cleaner, safer—when it improves the resulting product in any important way—it’s just as “authentic” as Aunt Mamie’s double boiler.

Now of course, when I say “within limits,” I’m kind of kicking the can down the road. I’m not going to get into, in this post, where the limits should be—whether lab-grown meat, for instance, lies beyond them. All I’ll say is that the gap between “artisan” and “artificial intelligence” isn’t as big as a lot of people seem to think.