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Brewing an Art or a Science?

Dr Nirupa Bareja

PhD Biological Science, Chief Adviser at the Mazumdar Shaw medical foundation, She’s also on the scientific & technical advisory board of three innovative start-up companies ­— SigTuple, Aten Porous & 1Crowd

Humans have been brewing alcohol since the dawn of recorded history and distilling stretches back over a thousand years. Brewing and distilling play a major role in the economy of any country. Industries as diverse as farming, tourism, construction and retail all rely on, and contribute to alcohol production.

This multidisciplinary certificate is designed to complement an existing major in a related field, by providing a background understanding topics related to the brewing and distilling industries- the science, the business, and the history as well as an internship – students need to become competitive in the marketplace.

Students who want to work in the business side of the industry might take a business degree and then the extra course work for this certificate. People who want to be brewers might take a biology or chemistry degree while someone interested in an agriculture degree or someone looking to design bottles or labels might take a graphic or industrial design degree.

The center piece of the program is the brand new 135 barrel capacity on the campus brewery at the center of research and development scheduled to begin operations in March’ 2017.

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 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 an onsite lab to monitor production. To those that are aware of it, it may sound strange as labs are most often imagined to be pristine in the way they are kept, every surface nearly white and every instrument shinning in bright overhead lights. But that’s not necessarily the case in brewing. However, that’s not to say that brewery labs are dirty. Just don’t buy into the Hollywood lab design.

Every batch of beer that makes its way into the lab of a craft brewery starts from a single concept.

My personal experience in brewing with specific reference to beer making has been quite interesting. From a stage where a woman was not allowed entry into a brewery to actually defining critical stages in the beer making process, the change has been dramatic. I was the First Lady Production Chief in India, a single lady handing a team of over 2000 men.

Personally, my experience working in a brewery, Mysore Breweries in Bangalore was great. As a part of the Biocons product development; I spent a few weeks designing and establishing two steps on the beer brewing process at the plant –

  • Improving the production efficiency and output per batch by adding a fining step which is adding a percentage of a product which is made from the swim bladder of air breathing marine cat fish. Introducing a small quantity of it in glass into the beer tanks post yeast fermentation helps clarifying the beer enabling a clear filtration step of good beer.
  • Adding another enzyme to the beer at the bottling stage which helps head stabilization. This rests in the foam head of the beer retaining its stability and form while drinking until the glass is emptied.
  • 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 drinkers’ palate to continually getting more inventive to develop new flavors and potentially new styles of beer.

Since the only necessary ingredients in beer are water, yeast, barely and hops, that’s where the aspect of art comes in to play much like the art of cooking!

How are the brews that come out of craft breweries artistic? It’s truly the combination of these four ingredients and their variants that produce different flavors. Throw in additional ingredients and you start getting into a whole new world of beer!

The same goes for trying different varieties of hops, malt or yeast. It’s that variation where Brewers can get artistic and adventurous in the way they develop the beer flavors. Much like the combination of paints on a painters’ palette make different plots come alive on his canvas.

As new flavor profiles are developed, they are tested too. But testing doesn’t start in the lab. Testing is done before any ingredients are put in the mash-tun.

Brewers are taking readings of the beer at just about every step of the brewing process. A common step is the testing of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) a molecule found on 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 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 prodded by the solution.

It sounds pretty scientific and a bit complicated but it is done to ensure cleanliness and actually looks simple.

ATP tests are used as a preventive matter. 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.

Testing is even done while packaging beer samples. Testing is done right throughout the brewing process to ensure consistency too. If testing of a batch doesn’t meet spec, the brewery can adjust it by blending it into the next batch by adjusting and comparing them with the standard batches.

The adjustments come with tests and practice. As long as it tastes and looks good well go with it!

Although blending batches is bit of a craft brewing faus pax it keeps breweries from wasting beer that may taste and look good, simply because measurements are a bit off the mark – Isn’t it an art here too? The positive side of blending is also to prevent sending off a complete batch that they weren’t entirely happy with.

Labs are also used to test the International bitter units – IBU. These readings let the brewer 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 they can take the exact measurement by using a spectrophotometer.

However, test results are not so important when it comes to the overall taste, colour and smell of beer.

Also there is an element of neurogastronomy when it comes to brewing — 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 beer that they do not agree with in the batches that’ll follow to make changes to the final. Erosion of beer, that’s where the consideration of how the brain is wired comes to play.

When one looks at different styles one begins to see how different characteristics in a beer really change the very experience of drinking the beer.

American lagers for example don’t taste thin and watery because they crank up the carbonate to really impart a sting in your mouth. Compared to a beer where there is more malt or different mash temperatures you may not notice the thinner body because of the way you experience all the stimuli together. Each of these decisions is based on the experience that you want your drinker to have, but you need to know how your palate and brain will perceive them – a hint of art again! 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 compliment each other comes in handy. And that’s where the artistry lies again.

As mentioned earlier – a brewer’s hand selecting ingredients is much like a 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 people of a brewery staff and management will go to the supplier and actually hand-pick ingredients such as hops.

Hop harvest typically takes place in autumn. They are rubbed and felt within the hands and then selected. Especially smelling hops which all smell similar, you are trying to differentiate their very subtle nuances. That’s one of the most artistic processes. We’re not taking any numbers here, just going off by what smells the best!

Winslow the world class brewer states “there’s something about going through the hops from the supplier at the beginning of the season and satiny ‘No not this one. Yes, this one.’ There is no way that one can scientifically measure this – another artistic nuance”.

Sensory science is used to develop flavor profile. A line up of beer tasters are requested to taste the beers and give their opinion. Even the head space is decided better using the human nose and taste buds rather than a machine.

There’s a sort of artisanal approach to craft brewing. Being able to make the right choice based on how an ingredient feels and only being able to work with what’s available that it may be different from other harvests is unlike other crafts. But is brewing an ingredient an art at all levels?

The synergy between what is in the beer and the equipment a brewery uses is crucial. And the brewery lab plays a part in creating that beer on a regular basis just as much as the mash tun on the brewery floor.

Maybe what craft beer comes down to is a synergy between art and then, in brewing.

There is an art behind sitting down and saying, “this is the flavor we want”.

But figuring out what it is, you use science behind perfecting the “art”!!


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