Gearhead: Brew Labs
Like a number of craft breweries, Placentia, California’s The Bruery has grown their laboratory from a small cobbled-together room with a single staffer to a multifaceted team of four in a space the size of a small house. Their threefold approach—analysis, microbiology, and sensory evaluation—provides a wealth of useful information about the beer they brew.
BEER AND SCIENCE ARE inexorably linked. As humans pursued the art of brewing and fermentation throughout history, scientific understanding and technological advances preceded or closely followed each of beer’s evolutionary steps, from Louis Pasteur’s homebrewing and “discovery” of yeast to refrigeration to the advanced analytical equipment of today. Modern brewery laboratories are no longer the purview of only the largest production facilities, and everyone from start-up breweries to brewpubs to homebrewers can improve their brews with a little applied science.
One brewery that’s embraced the utility of a laboratory is The Bruery in Orange County, California. Known and loved for innovative and boundary-pushing beers, The Bruery struggled with rogue microbes in 2013 that led to the unintentional souring of some high-profile beers. The backlash put The Bruery’s reputation on the line. It took a major cultural shift, not to mention a sizable capital investment, to avert disaster. The Bruery Founder and Brewmaster Patrick Rue doubled down on his investment in a brewing laboratory, and recently, I sat down with Quality & Innovation Manager Jessica Davis to see how the lab fits into The Bruery’s production.
I first met Davis in passing in 2013 soon after she started working full time at The Bruery (she’d consulted for the brewery prior to her hire), and back then the lab was a converted kitchenette next to offices in The Bruery’s industrial-park home in Placentia. Less than four years later, The Bruery has expanded into every suite in the building, and the purpose-built lab is now almost 1,400 square feet and staffed by four. Unlike the other equipment we’ve looked at in this column, the lab isn’t a single piece of gear with a well-defined purpose. It’s a collection of tools and processes for gaining insight into a beer, and the tools are best integrated into every step of the brewing process.
A Threefold Approach
At The Bruery, Davis gets involved before a single drop is brewed; she’s a member of the brewery’s innovation team alongside Rue and experimental brewer Andrew Bell. The trio explores the fuzzy boundaries of beer for new flavors (and The Bruery brews a lot of different beers—nearly
seventy in 2016 including releases from the off-shoot sour facility, Bruery Terreux). Rue comes up with the concept for most new beers; Bell then begins to develop a pilot batch recipe; and Davis designs experiments to analyze the brew, tests any of the uncommon ingredients that are a hallmark of The Bruery, and scales up the recipe for the production brewhouse. These production beers are tested at every step through the brewery, from rawingredient samples to the final QA hold in the brite tank before being packaged, and then packaged beer is tested in the weeks and months down the line.
The Bruery’s lab space itself is divided into three main zones plus an administration area. Each zone represents the threefold approach to the lab’s quality assurance mission: analysis, microbiology, and sensory evaluation.
Most of the lab’s instrumentation is in the analysis zone, and one of the most important instruments in Davis’s arsenal is the Anton Paar Alcolyzer. The unit determines the density, and thus the alcohol content, of samples, and—along with the CO2 meter and ph meter—tells Davis what the beer is made of. Each instrument provides insight into different brewing-process efficiencies. There are analysis microscopes, too, for cell counts and identifying other microorganisms present or even determining the source of haze.
Microscopes and stir plates are the main tools in the microbiology zone where the main task is yeast management.
The final aspect of the lab’s responsibilities is sensory evaluation, and that requires the most important instruments at the brewery: the trained palates of the sensory evaluation team.
Sensory panels are run at The Bruery every day in the purpose-built space inside the lab, with panelists pulled from every department in the brewery. Quality Laboratory Lead & Sensory Specialist Jennifer Augustine runs the sensory evaluations, and she knows the sensitivities and blind spots of all her panelists. The humans are the most important part of the lab, says Davis. They provide context and interpret all the data collected by the instruments.
A craft brewery doesn’t need supersensitive lab equipment to implement a quality-assurance program; the best first step is “a good sensory space that minimizes distraction and bias,” she says. Taste and measure the beer at every step of the process. Know what the beer should taste like based on recipe and concept and compare that idea to the finished product. A sensory panel can identify many process faults, and it’s the best first step in any brewery’s pursuit of quality.
A Culture of Quality Assurance
The Bruery made a significant investment in the lab, equipment, staff, and ongoing training, but a brewery doesn’t need a bunch of space and lots of complex equipment to run a QA program. “You need to instill the culture of quality assurance in the whole brewery staff,” Davis says. “Any brewery can do forced-attenuation tests and cell counts or monitor the ph of a fermentation.” The
latter test is even better at monitoring the progress of a fermentation than checking gravity, she says, because if you know how the ph changes through the fermentation of a beer, you can catch problems earlier and easier. ph meters are affordable, even at the homebrew level, and while microscopes are more expensive and require more training to use, they are the foundation of brewing science and crucial for proper yeast management. “You need to do cell counts to pitch the appropriate amount of yeast,” Davis advises. Whether it’s stowed away in a cabinet or on an out-of-the way desk, set up in a converted bathroom, or a single instrument in a dedicated laboratory, the microscope can show a brewer what’s happening inside his/her beer.
Davis, a self-proclaimed “nerd with a microscope in the closet at home,” says that homebrewers, too, can benefit from a scientific approach to quality assurance, even without scientific instruments. It’s about the mindset that you cultivate when brewing. No matter where you’re set up, don’t think of it as your garage or your kitchen counter; think of your brewing space as a brewery. Be neat and orderly with your equipment. Clean and sanitize with a scientist’s diligence. Take careful measurements and keep meticulous notes. Learn to use a microscope and do cell counts. Maybe pick up a book on microbiology (at least one on yeast biology). Work to train and develop your palate. Remember that the most powerful instruments available to any brewer are in his/her mouth and between his/her ears.
Clockwise from left » The Bruery’s mobile analysis station; the Bruery’s lab has grown from a converted kitchenette to a 1,400-square-foot complex; samples growing on a stir plate.
The Bruery’s sensory analysis lab includes private stations for panelists to minimize distraction and bias with sliding doors for presenting samples.