The Brew Master’s Engineers

The Greater and Vital Presence of Science in Canadian Brewing

By: James Burt

As a youth in the early 1970s, science student and Creston, British Columbia native Alex Speers had an affinity for beer. Landing a job during his post-secondary education at Columbia Breweries strengthened his interest in brewing and meshed well with his studies.

“I worked almost everywhere in the brewery,” said Speers, now a Ph.D. holder and brewing science professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “You got to see how chemistry, biology, and even psychology could be applied to brewing science. My mentor, Graham Stewart, did beer research at Labatts and supported my research.”

Over the past three decades, Speers, like many other food/brewing science graduates, have been able to seize upon their knowledge of brewing science and help improve it comprehensively with research, experimentation, and educational practices.

“You have better standards and better insights now to a lot of issues,” he said. “For example, we worked on PYF [premature yeast flocculation] where we studied fungal infections in malting barley and how it causes problems in fermenting beer. Funding from the federal government’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council allowed our team working at the Crop Development Center of the University of Saskatchewan, the Canadian Grain Commission of the University of Winnipeg, and the Canadian Institute of Fermentation at Dalhousie University allowed us to study PYF in depth. We were able to see that there might be one or more fungi species infecting Canadian barely that severely impacts brewing fermentations. A test developed at Dalhousie is now a ‘Standard method’ and has been estimated by KPMG to save $10,000,000 per seasonal occurrence.”

Academies and Brewing Floors

Alek Egi, a master’s degree graduate in food science that was supervised by Dr. Speers, is currently an instructor of the brewing and brewery operations program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Langley, British Columbia. He points to the emphasis of science and mathematics as the basis of brewery education today and that students are exposed to various scientific platforms in their studies.

“There are more than a few courses at KPU Brewing that are entirely science based or with a healthy dose of science,” said Egi. “The core science courses would be brewing chemistry and brewing microbiology, which both have the classroom and lab component. Students also learn sensory science. It comes as a bit of a surprise to some of our students that, besides beer tasting, a big part of sensory science is data analysis and statistics. In other courses such as brewing calculation or equipment and technology there are elements of basic engineering.”

Brewing programs also provide science usage with hands-on applications given to their students.

“Our new university brewery at Dalhousie is a teaching ground,” said Speers. “Students get tasks to complete right in there and also make beer that is supplied to campus pubs.”  

More Research

One of the benefits of increased beer science in laboratories today is the ability to experiment and pursue new scientific areas not previously detailed. Like medicine and archaeology, beer science is ever changing and there are a plethora of previously uncharted facets of the brewing industry that almost require more understanding.

“We’ve got a proposal in to study floor malting,” said Speers. “Most malting today comes from temperature controlled vats to get the germination in the grain. But floor malting just involves laying grain on the floor to germinate. The benefit of this is that malting could be easier to do and provide new opportunities for maltsters and to source raw materials.”

Adds Egi: “Even though our primary mandate at KPU is teaching, we are currently in a process of starting some applied research. There are also large parts of uncharted territory around the microbes—brewing yeasts and other microorganisms—that are responsible for the fermentation. Some other examples from around the world would include research of hop composition and specific organic materials that are responsible for many different aromas and flavours in beer. ​

Scientific Neglect, Often From the Top Down

While brewing scientists can talk in detail about their work and research with interesting detail, the neglect of scientific understand is still an obvious issue they see in the brewing world.

“You get a lot of quotes from people outside of the beer world and even the media that say, ‘There’s nothing more to know about brewing’,” said Speers. “That’s just an ignorant cheap shot. If anything, there’s a larger need to show brewing in a more intellectual light. On that point, why is there not a government sponsored university chair in brewing? I’d even recommend two-to-three chairs—one for brewing, one for malting, and one for barley breeding—in brewing research programs. There needs to be more attention directed at politicians to fund programs to produce new, scientific, malting, brewing and even distilling focused bachelors of science graduates at level professionals.”

As Egi also states, beer is responsible for so many scientific discoveries. Brewers themselves can only see their practices improve by incorporating a better focus on science in their operations, no matter what the size of the brewing operation.

“Science and brewing were always closely tied together. A lot of important scientific discoveries are directly related to brewing, such as: invention of refrigeration, pasteurization, student t-tests, and the pH scale,” Egi said. “I think that science really plays a crucial role. Brewers have to be creative, but also to produce a good quality product they must have a very solid understanding of scientific principles behind the process. A good quality beer is the one that consistently meets its specification. After all, product consistency is exactly what customers expect.”​