The world of beer is much like the world we live in. It can be brought down to simple, or not so simple, calculations of how it all works. Just as a meteorologist uses specific formulas and tools to predict weather patterns, brewers have similar scientific approaches to making beer, and tools to measure its consistency.
As a matter of fact, large-scale breweries typically have a laboratory on-site to monitor production. To those that are aware of it, it may sound strange since laboratories are most often imagined to be pristine in the way they are kept; every surface pearly white and every instrument on every table shimmering in bright overhead light. But that’s not necessarily the case, there are brewers looking after these labs after all. However, that’s not to say brewery labs are dirty. Just don’t buy into the Hollywood laboratory imagery.
Every batch of beer that makes its way into the lab of a craft brewery starts from a single concept, often an artisanal concept at that. Art just about always proves a point. And the point brewers try to make with artfully minded craft beers is that they are capable of continuously pushing the beer drinker’s palate by continually getting more inventive to develop new flavors and potentially, new styles of beer.
Since the only necessary ingredients in beer are water, yeast, barley and hops, that’s where the aspect of art comes into play. How are the brews coming out of craft breweries artistic? It’s the combination of those four ingredients and their variants that produce different beer flavors. Throw in additional ingredients, and you start getting into a whole new beer.
The same goes for trying different varieties of hops, malt, or yeast. It’s that variation where brewers can get artistic and get adventurous in the way they develop beers. Much like the combination of different paints on a painter’s palette make different colors.
As new flavor profiles are developed, they are tested too. But testing doesn’t start in the lab. There is testing that’s done before any ingredients can even be put into the mash tun.
Brewers are taking readings of the beer at just about every step of the brewing process. A common test is checking for adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule found in the presence of living cells. It gives an indication of how clean any piece of brewing equipment may be. The test is done by swabbing equipment, such as a mash tun, with a disposable instrument that looks like a pen. It has a solution inside that contains luciferase, an enzyme found in fireflies that the swab is mixed in. The solution is then measured with a luminometer, telling how much ATP is present by giving a reading of the light produced by the solution.
It sounds pretty scientific and a bit complicated, but it’s done to ensure cleanliness and actually looks simple.
ATP tests are used as a preventative matter, according to Franklin Winslow, Director of Quality Control at Yards Brewing Company. Winslow is actually in the process of expanding their lab, which should provide them with space to do more testing, more efficiently.
Labs also check for different aspects of the beer once it is bottled. While the ATP test is there to basically let the brewers know if they need to clean equipment again before using it, lab tests mostly check how the beer is as a finished product before leaving the brewery.
“What we’re usually testing in the lab are all those other factors like alcohol percentage, carbonation and pH,” Winslow says. “Basically, any time they do a packaging run, even if it’s just a pallet, we get a sample. That’s so we are doing assurance now to prevent problems and not quality control further down the line.”
That’s for the beer once it’s bottled; the testing that’s done throughout the brewing process is for consistency, too. If testing on a batch comes out and isn’t up to spec, the brewery can adjust it by blending it with the next. They’ll know how the following batches will need to be adjusted by taking the test results in the lab and comparing them with what their standard for that beer is.
“We’ll look into those numbers for that specific blend,” says Zach Miller, Quality Lab Technician at Victory Brewing Company. “We’ll say, ‘Let’s do a 90 percent blend of that one we know is good and a ten percent blend of this one that didn’t quite turn out like we wanted.’ And if we determine that the overall blend is good, then we’ll go with it. We will look into those numbers for that specific blend, but we’re not going to reject a beer if the color is a little too light or it’s toobitter strictly based on the numbers. As long as it tastes and looks good, we’ll go with it.”
Although blending batches is a bit of a craft brewing faux pas, it keeps breweries from wasting beer that may taste and look great, simply because the lab measurements are a bit off the mark. The positive side of blending is that it keeps breweries from sending out all of a batch that they weren’t entirely happy with.
The assurance that that sort of thing isn’t happening is the biggest role of the brewery lab. Yes, they make sure the beer is ready to head out to the local distributors, but labs can also be used to test other aspects of the beers such as International Bitterness Units (IBU). These readings let brewers know whether batches are on the mark with how bitter they want that particular beer to consistently be.
When it comes to IBUs and what brewers expect a certain beer to match the brand they have in mind for it, they can take an exact measurement using a spectrophotometer. This desktop printer-looking machine measures the ultraviolet-visibility with a numerical read-out that lets brewers know how close they are to a desired IBU reading that brewers want for a particular beer. But IBU readings may not always be exact, despite meeting the flavor profile that brewers want.
Take Victory’s Hop Ranch Double IPA, a double IPA that has an IBU in the seventies (out of a potential one hundred) into consideration.
“It’s a double IPA, so the average is going to have a very high bitterness,” says Zach Miller. “We were looking to have a little bit of a higher number there, but we liked the flavor so much and it’s so well-balanced that we decided not to mess with it. So, we were looking for a specific number, but it didn’t change our processes at all, we were just happy with the flavor.”
So, the test results are not necessarily all that important when it comes down to the overall taste, color, and smell of the beer. The senses won’t lie to a brewer after he or she knows what that beer should taste, look and smell like.
Winslow explains that there’s an element of neurogastronomy to brewing. In layman’s terms, that’s knowing how flavors and textures affect the brain; and knowing how to manipulate a beer when developing a flavor profile is just as vital to knowing how to brew it at all. When tasting a test batch of a new beer, brewers consider what they can do to the aspects of beers they do not agree with in the batches that’ll follow, to make changes to the final version of that beer. That’s where the consideration of how the brain is wired comes into play.
“If you look at different beer styles, you begin to see how different characteristics in a beer really change the way you experience drinking it,” Winslow says. “American lagers, for example, don’t taste thin and watery because they crank up the carbonation to really impart a sting in your mouth. Compared to a beer where there’s more malt or different mash temperatures, you may not notice the thinner body because of the way you experience all those stimuli together. Each of those decisions are based on the experience you want your drinker to have, but you need to know how your palate and your brain will perceive them.”
That’s largely on the flavor conception side of things. And achieving the right body in a beer plays an equally-sized role in the actual flavor of it. Here’s where knowing how different types of ingredients complement comes in handy.
And that’s where the artistry lies.
As mentioned earlier, a brewer hand selecting ingredients is much like the painter selecting specific paints or the sculptor carefully picking out materials to carve. Craft breweries often go to the same ingredient supplier each season, but they don’t necessarily go home with the same exact ingredients each year. Select teams of brewery staff and management will go to their supplier and actually hand-pick ingredients such as hops.
“Hop harvest typically takes place in autumn,” Miller says. “We’ll rub them and feel them with our hands and things, and make a selection on which crop we like the most. Especially smelling hops, which all smell similar, you’re really trying to differentiate their very subtle nuances. That’s one of the more artistic processes. We’re not taking any numbers, we’re just going off of what smells the best.”
Victory isn’t the only one taking such an open-minded approach to hop hunting. Yards takes a similar perspective on seasonal hop selection. Even when presented with the different acidic characteristic of the various hops, Winslow and the rest of the team at Yards base their selections on instinct as well.
Winslow says, “There’s something about going through the hops from the supplier at the beginning of the season and saying, ‘No, not this one. Yes, this one. But the alpha is way off on this one. But the beta is… no, no, this is the one we want. These right here.’ There’s no way to really measure that.”
The understanding of how ingredients feel to get that desired flavor profile being produced can essentially only come down to taste testing as well. Here’s where the actual taste testing plays a role, even in a larger craft brewery such as Dogfish Head.
“Sensory science is what we use to develop flavor profile,” Tim Hawn, Brewmaster at Dogfish Head, says. “We will put the beer or ingredient in front of folks to get their opinion on the beer or compounds we are looking for. I take that input and while someone may say, ‘[needs] more hops,’ if that wasn’t the goal, then we may not do it. It’s the verification piece we need. We, even at our size, haven’t progressed to head space analysis or other testing to confirm with a machine what we feel can better be done by the human nose and taste buds.”
That’s the sort of artisanal approach to craft brewing that’s key to the practice. Being able to make the right choices based on how an ingredient feels and only being able to work with what’s available to them; that it may be different from other harvests, is unlike other crafts. But is brewing and ingredient an art at all levels?
“With the nature of craft brewing, we don’t have access to the same ingredients that one of the Bud, Miller and Coors guys do,” Miller says. “They get products to specification coming in their doors. We don’t necessarily know that it’s the specification we want until we brew with it. And that’s the nature of the business. They get the same malt every time, the same hops every time. We are more at the mercy of our malt and hops growers.”
Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster and President of Victory, explains that one of their flagship beers, the HopDevil IPA, was created as an artisanal effort because of the hops and malt they selected, and what’s typically used in the IPA style. At the time of its conception, they wanted to get a “broader, deeper and richer,” hop profile up front by using full flower hops, but also get the caramel characteristic of German malt for a warmer and smoother finish.
Since IPAs are typically brewed with English malts, the HopDevil was a bit of a diversion from the norm. But when breweries come up with something that’s different, or a new beer entirely for that matter, they have to make sure that they can produce it consistently.
Take winemaking into consideration. Each type of wine has a specific grape that should be used to make it. And then if there’s a year of bad a crops yielding to make that wine, winemakers can fall back on the excuse that, “Well, we had a bad year this year.” Craft brewers don’t necessarily have that freedom. Beers drinkers expect a beer to taste good, but also be consistent. That’s where the artisan nature of craft brewing may get a bit difficult, though. The mechanization of mass producing craft beers is where the “craft” aspect of craft brewing is lost. But the craft effort still exists at breweries, such as Victory.
“The vision is of what the flavor impact should be on the palate,” Covaleski says about creating flavor profiles despite the size and mechanizationof Victory. “And from there, once you conceive the impact you want to have, you begin to select ingredients based on their interaction with one another and based on their interaction within your own brewery.”
That synergy between what is in the beer and the equipment a brewery uses is crucial as far as Covaleski is concerned. And the brewery lab plays a part in creating that beer on a regular basis, just as much the mash tun on the brewery floor.
Maybe what craft beer really comes down to is that synergy between the art and the science.
“There’s an art behind sitting down and saying, ‘This is the flavor profile we want,’” Winslow says. “But figuring out what it is, you use science behind that to perfect the art.”