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Lessons from the 20th century

  History binds labs,  breweries

As a new millennium of brewing begins, homebrewers and commercial breweries can feel justifiably proud for changing the way beer is made.

For too long Americans’ choices of beer amounted to what was being made by a handful of brewers. But to produce the best beer possible, perhaps it is appropriate to look back to the way beer was made before the term craft brewing was coined.

For years, big breweries had one major advantage over everyone else — quality control. They knew that to produce good beer, one had to rely not just on ingredients, but on the consistency between each batch of beer. They achieved this, in part, by building their own labs and hiring scientists to run them.

Brewery labs have not only fostered consistency and innovation (see sidebar), they also have been wielded as an indirect marketing tool. Big breweries have launched a series of television commercials that poke fun at the sometimes uneven quality of craft beer.

Craft brewers have been fighting back. They have been striving to raise the quality and consistency of their product. White Labs has introduced several products and services that make it easier — and more affordable — to have top-notch quality control.

White Labs, which manufactures brewers yeast, has recently joined a small list of organizations that open up their labs to craft brewers.

The Complete Sample Analysis is the lab’s most popular service. It checks a yeast or beer sample for aerobic bacteria, anaerobic bacteria, wild yeast, and further characterizes detected contamination by Gram staining and catalase testing.

At the end of 1999, the lab introduced a new test for beer called the Complete BEER Analysis. This test checks the IBU level, Color, pH, and Aerobic/Anaerobic plate count.

This test gives brewers information about their beer and brewing system, said company President Chris White.

"You can compare your expected hop extractions vs. actual, and color in finished beer. If you are producing the same beer in multiple locations, this will give you an analytical measurement of consistency.

"With the bacteria counts, it also helps you to rate the quality of your packaging methods. Before you send beer to the next GABF or other competitions, send it through a Complete BEER Analysis first."

White was surprised by the popularity of the program, which he introduced at first as a courtesy to longtime customers. But the interest in the program encouraged him to widen its scope and to devote more resources to it.

"Our focus on a day-to-day basis has been producing yeast. But we have always seen our larger goal as using our lab to promote better quality control for those with limited resources," White said.

Other products that focus on quality control include the HLP Test Kit, HRM Test Kit, and the Wild Yeast Test Kit. White Labs’ goal has been to make easy to use, quick kits that allow brewers to gain information and control over their products.

"The kits have made it possible for many brewers to do laboratory style testing without the lab, a true `lab in box,’" White said.

"The kits are easy to use. The hardest part is taking the time to read the instructions," he said.

Louis Pasteur

Lab work often translates into better tasting beer, but it occasionally has led to much more.

The most famous beer research was conducted by the French chemist Louis Pasteur, who developed the process known as pasteurization. While this process is not widely used by craft breweries, Pasteur’s work in the field of yeast has left a lasting impact on all brewers.

In short, he applied science to brewing. He used microscopes, which had been around for 200 years, to find that yeast cells were responsible for fermentation. With this discovery, people could now isolate yeast, culture it and improve it.

The discovery revolutionized brewing.

Later, Eduard Buchner, a German chemist, received the 1907 Nobel for research showing that alcohol fermentation is caused by the action of enzymes in yeast and not just by yeast cells.

Eduard Buchner