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May 16, 2016

UMaine says 'cheers' to trend for more science in craft brewing

Photo / courtesy of the University of maine
Photo / courtesy of the University of maine
Brian Martyniak, left, a graduate student at UMaine, with professors Jason Bolton and Brian Perkins. They are studying strains of old yeast that might be used in sour beers.
Photo / courtesy of the University of maine
Brian Martyniak, a UMaine graduate student researches strains of old yeast that might be used in sour beers.
Photo / courtesy of the university of maine
Jason Bolton, left, a professor at UMaine, examines advanced brewing equipment with graduate student Brian Martyniak and another professor, Brian Perkins.

Two University of Maine, Orono, professors who wanted to attract more students to science-based classes recently tapped into the trend among Maine brewers to apply research to maintain the quality and consistent taste of their beers.

Food science and human nutrition professors Jason Bolton and Brian Perkins developed a course, FSN 121 Brewing with Food Science, and taught it over the past three years. Their idea caught on fast. The undergraduate course is so popular that enrollment is capped at 80 students per semester. And several students who have taken the class now work in Maine breweries.

"More science is creeping into the art or craft of brewing," says Heather Muzzy, who sat in on the class three days a week during her senior year while working at Allagash Brewing Co. the other two days. She also had an internship at Shipyard Brewing Co. the year before taking the class.

"In that class I got a solid foundation of what was happening during the entire brewing process, so I could match the taste of beer to a problem with it," says Muzzy, who is now a quality control specialist at Allagash. "In quality control, I do a lot of problem solving on the fly."

She says the art of brewing is typically learned like an apprenticeship, but more classes are needed. There are several in the United States, including at the University of California Davis, the Culinary Institute of America, Paul Smith's College and the Siebel Institute in Chicago, to name a few. Online courses and certifications are offered by Cicerone.org.

The FSN 121 class at UMaine is primarily lectures with some guest speakers from breweries. It includes topics like the history of beer, carbohydrate fundamentals, beer styles, the brewing process, malts and malting, fermentation, cider and sake, as well as the final topic for the semester, the ethics of alcohol abuse.

Guest speakers have included Martin Stokes talking about English breweries wort, Tim Gallon of Black Bear Brewery and Luke Davidson of Maine Craft Distilling.

The University of Southern Maine in February made news for another type of service, a partnership with the Maine Brewers' Guild on a Quality Assurance Lab where students can get research opportunities and area brewers can have a local facility to assure the quality of their beers and identify problems.

Muzzy says her class at UMaine had a mix of students, as it could help fulfill the science requirement for non-science majors. A chemical engineering major, Muzzy says she didn't even know about the food science program in her freshman year, let alone consider working for a brewery.

"I think the class is a very attractive option and could turn some people into a career in beer," she adds. "You can make a living wage."

Industry collaborations

Beyond the course, Bolton, Perkins and graduate student Brian Martyniak are taking beer research to the next level by studying yeasts and innovative sour beers.

The university has several research collaborations with Maine breweries, including Allagash in Portland, Orono Brewing Co. and Black Bear Brewery, also in Orono.

Martyniak is working with Allagash on Brettanomyces yeast strains to ferment sour beer. Another graduate student, Matt Hodgkin, is starting research on mycotoxin (toxins produced by fungi) prevention in hard cider, which is growing into another hot Maine product.

"I started here two years ago to pursue brewing research, which I can directly apply to the brewing industry," says Martyniak. "I'm using the equipment here, which is very expensive, to get data on samples of Brettanomyces to help brewers." That includes Allagash, with which he has been working.

Martyniak, who is now a graduate teaching assistant at UMaine, previously was a brewing technician with Sprig and Fern Brewery in New Zealand and a quality assurance/quality control lab technician at Harpoon Brewery in Boston. He plans to complete his master's degree in Food Science and Technology at UMaine this year.

He writes in a summary of the thesis he currently is writing that the yeast strains he is studying are traditionally found in Belgian brewing practices and English beers in the early 1900s, but U.S. craft breweries have started using the Brettanomyces yeast strains to get unusual characteristics in their beer.

But since Brettanomyces is relatively new to craft brewers compared to the two Saccharomyces strains that are used with lagers and ales, he notes there is little research surrounding the best methods of working with it, so he is studying its properties.

Problem solving

Perkins says most of the focus of the advanced research is on problem solving and R&D. For example, at UMaine's Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, researchers are looking at the attributes of hops and the viability of hop varieties grown in Maine's climate conditions. Perkins is trying to identify and count the individual acids produced by the hops.

Another research focus, adds Bolton, is on how to maintain the quality and consistency of beer, as there aren't food safety issues in beer.

The researchers and students have a lot of analytical equipment that brewers typically can't afford at their disposal. Perkins' laboratory has bought the equipment via competitive grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and industry partnerships with the aim of growing the Maine food economy. The equipment only in the past few years has been used to look at beer and novel mineral spirits. It also has been used in research projects on lobsters, sea urchins, apple cider, tomatoes, blueberries and potatoes.

The aim, say Perkins and Bolton, is not just to do research with breweries and Maine food businesses, but to incorporate coursework and research into UMaine graduate and undergraduate programs, whose students may end up in the brewing, fermentation and distilling industries.

Perkins and Bolton also have a research brewery with a pilot brewing system and a temperature-controlled fermentation system.

Right now, the school's beer research and teaching is limited to the FSN 121 course and independent research by students, but Perkins says he and Bolton have been lobbying to develop a more advanced, hands-on course. Perkins says he hopes that will happen in the next couple years.

Adds Bolton, "The future of the program is in improving the basic course and in the advanced fermentation course. In a few years we may include wine and other fermented foods."

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