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Revolutionary Fermaent: Cooking Up Craft Beer That Travels

Submitted by on September 9, 2009 – 7:55 AMNo Comment
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The Wall Street Journal

LOUVAIN-LA-NEUVE, Belgium -Sonia Collin, one of the world’s leading beer chemists, has spent a life tinkering with recipes, consulting for everybody from mom-and-pop brewers to titan Anheuser-Busch InBev NV.

Now, in a lab in Belgium, a hub of craft brewing where Trappist monks have been fermenting complex beers for centuries, Ms. Collin seeks the specialty brewer’s Holy Grail: great beers that keep their taste long enough that they can be shipped, stored and sold around the world without going bad.

Working with the help of a $1.7 million government grant, a team headed by Ms. Collin hopes to develop new techniques to prolong the shelf life of highly perishable craft brews.
Brewing Beer That Lasts

The University of Louvain-la-Neuve lab’s $250,000 tasting machine identifies the chemical components present in a sample of beer.

All brewers adjust their recipes according to some degree of chemistry knowledge and training. But Ms. Collin’s work, which will one day be published, will be closely watched by brewers around the world.

U.S. brewers say the work could help them grow their exports and make inroads into mass-produced lagers’ dominance of the domestic market.

“Beer is liquid bread,” says Matt Brynildson, who runs Firestone Walker Brewing in California. “It’s not bulletproof. Like bread or milk or cheese, it goes bad quickly.”

Shelf life is critical to shipping any processed food or drink beyond its home region, a lesson learned by everybody from Nestlé SA and Coca-Cola Co. to French cheese makers and Italian ham producers. Salting fired the great Atlantic Cod fishing industry centuries ago. Napoleon’s armies were the first to boil and can vegetables for the long haul, say food historians.

In the late 19th century, pasteurization, which heats liquids to kill bacteria, made it possible to package and ship liquids over long distances. More recently, companies came up with sealed plastic packaging and freezing techniques to turn processed foods into a global business.

But beer preservation techniques have lagged behind. Beers usually lose flavor after less than three months. Sunlight spoils the flavor by weakening the effect of the hops, letting a sulfuric, cardboard-tasting compounds take over the taste. Fermentation in the bottle and waste from bacteria can wreak havoc (though darker beers with high alcohol are an exception, maturing to produce a port flavor).

Better bottling methods and rigorous pasteurization have allowed big beer companies like Heineken NV and Anheuser to expand the lives of their beers. But to some beer enthusiasts, these lagers are simple and bland-tasting. Craft beers tend to be more vulnerable, mostly because there has been much less work done on how to make the result of their precise combinations of barley, hops, yeast and sugar last longer. Smaller breweries tend to focus on selling in their own neighborhoods, beer experts say.

The Belgian government, searching for ways to boost its homegrown industries after losing national steel and financial companies to foreign owners, has allocated $7 million for research on extending the shelf life of foods, including beer. It chose four family-owned brewers to take part and assigned researcher Ms. Collin the job of running the program.

The 46-year-old Ms. Collin forged her reputation as a top beer engineer in the 1990s. Interbrew, then a European brewer that since has joined up with Brazil’s AmBev and Anheuser-Busch of the U.S., was having trouble keeping some of its most popular beers consistent in taste for more than three months.

Ms. Collin analyzed how Trans 2 Nonenal, the chemical responsible for giving older beer a cardboard taste, behaved in the bottle. She came up with a solution — drastically cutting the amount of oxygen let into the liquid while the ingredients were mashed and boiled. “She looked at the beer industry through the eyes of a flavor expert,” says Jérôme Pellaud, a brewmaster at Anheuser, who worked with her at the time.

Ms. Collin started her career cooking up anti-schizophrenic medication for pharmaceutical companies. She was drawn to taste science two decades ago by a fascination with the link between food and chemistry. Ms. Collin’s team also works with other types of food and drinks. “We’re working with chocolate makers in Cuba to help them choose the right cocoa beans,” she says.

Her brewing department at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve is one of a handful of institutions of its kind in Europe. Ms. Collin’s laboratory includes a $250,000 tasting machine that identifies the chemical components present in a sample of beer, cases and kegs of beers for experimentation and a small brewhouse.

On a recent day, representatives from the four companies participating in the program gathered in Ms. Collin’s lab for a meeting. Paul Lefebvre scribbled notes on a legal pad. He is the production manager for Brasserie Lefebvre, one of the four breweries in the program. The century-old, family-owned Belgian brewer makes Hopus, an exotic brew made from five kinds of hops; Barbar, a sweet honey ale; and Floreffe, a rich, sugary brew. Lefebvre exports only 2% of its $11 million annual sales to the U.S. Mr. Lefebvre would like to sell more, but he is held back by the beers’ short shelf life.

“Most of our beers taste funny and colors become hazy after a few months,” he says.

Ms. Collin and her colleague, former Interbrew engineer Laurent Mélotte, say they already have come up with some solutions for Mr. Lefebvre and his fellow brewers: look into using more organic ingredients, adjust yeast and oxygen levels and reduce the time the beer spends at high temperatures during the brewing process. “Other answers will come later,” says Mr. Mélotte. “We’re looking for gentle ways of helping these beers to remain identical more than 12 months.”

Mr. Lefebvre says building his business depends on his beers lasting longer: “After five weeks in a shipping container, you don’t have much time left to sell.”

Written by John W. Miller