Amanda Nally finds the perfect course for students who love beer.
If you don’t know your diacetyl from your sulphur – it may be time to go back to school.
University of Otago Department of Food Science Professor Phil Bremer is one of three faculty members with a keen interest in beer and brewing.
The department’s particular specialty is what craft beer fans would consider the pointy end of the industry – flavour science.
And arguably that’s also the point where a burgeoning industry is beginning to develop speed wobbles.
Self-taught brewers often experience a sharp learning curve when it comes to quality control. The accelerating rate at which brewers are entering the market means more inexperienced brewers learning on the job … and more experimental beers entering the market.
While the first wave of craft brewers had the benefit of a smaller pool of fans, who learned beer appreciation as they learned to brew, today’s craft drinker has higher expectations around quality.
Professor Bremer is one of many beer fans suffering from once bittered, twice shy syndrome. He’s now reluctant to buy an untasted pint at an on-licence, and finds himself gravitating to tried and true beers in off-licences.
It’s not the higher cost of beer but the higher cost of bad beer – and the difficulty in returning or refunding bad beers, that is proving the deterrent, he says.
The Department of Food Science is an integral part of the Southern Malt Collective, an annual gathering at Invercargill Brewery that’s one-part social, one-part educational and where the proof is in the beer.
Flavour Science lecturer Dr Graham Eyres opened the eyes and expanded the taste buds of many at a sensory course attended by 30 stalwarts, including brewers and bar owners.
As interesting as their own responses to different spiked beers, was the collective response of tasters to each fault – a third would taste it strongly, a third weakly and a third not at all. And everyone learned something about their own palate.
Brewers don’t set out to make bad beer at any stage in their careers – and the good news is the Department of Food Science will help them to make it better.
“We do trouble shooting – and we are happy to do our initial assessment without charge, though we always need some good beer as a comparison,” Eyres said.
Sensory evaluation doesn’t just establish beer faults, it can also help pinpoint where in the beer making process they may have occurred, and hence speed up the fix.
Otago University has long been a champion of craft brewing. In 1995 – shortly after Richard Emerson made his first foray into brewing – Professor Jean Pierre Dufour (formerly of Catholic University of Leuven near Brussels) joined the faculty with an interest in brewing and special interest in yeast cell metabolism and hop characteristics.
Dufour turned up with a huge well of knowledge, and a bank of Belgian yeasts he had acquired for research purposes; which the university has since added to and is today the guardian of 100 different yeasts.
In 2005 he boldly went where no academic had been before and enthusiastically visited every craft brewery in New Zealand. Tragically, Dufour died of a heart attack while attending a brewing conference in Nigeria in 2007, aged just 54. For several years JP had been researching methods to improve the quality and techniques used to produce Africa’s indigenous sorghum beers.
Dufour was posthumously awarded a lifetime recognition for his support of New Zealand’s fledgling craft beer industry, and fortunately that wasn’t the end of the story.
His legacy is kept alive by Emerson’s Brewery, which launches a Belgian style ale – called simply JP – on June 2 each year to celebrate the brew professor’s birthday. In 2014 Emersons’ also announced an annual JP Scholarship which is open to Dunedin tertiary students for projects related to technical, social or economic issues associated with the brewing industry.
During his tenure Dufour both inspired a generation of craft brewers and established a tradition of brewing science excellence at the University of Otago.
Each year the Food Science department graduates 60 students and 12 fourth year honours students, and it has around 26 PhD students at any one time. It’s here the legacy of Dufour looms largest.
Dufour’s final PhD student was Graham Eyres, who studied the aromatics of hop essential oils in 2004-2007. Graham returned to Otago in 2013 as a lecturer in flavour science, and he is now involved in hops and beerrelated research along with Phil and Pat Silcock.
This year two honours students have chosen brewing specific projects – one on the antimicrobial properties of hops, the second on the impact of fermentation parameters on hop flavour, while a PhD student is looking at the impact of yeast on hop flavour.
Graduates are adding a new depth to the industry – like Kelly Ryan of Fork and Brewer fame, who’s a graduate of Otago University Department of Food Science.
The Department of Food Science has just invested in a 50 litre brew kit as a teaching tool for fourth year students.
Students have to submit their beer recipe and process – predicting what it will deliver – then they get to build the beer following their recipe, monitor the fermentation and, finally, check the results against the theory.
The students will drink the results of their study, and whether that’s a pleasure or pain will depend on how close they came to pass.