College Professors Discuss Art and Science of Beer

Professor Jeffrey Byrd explains how a combination of materials including barley, grain, and water, are malted, roasted, and fermented to create beer. (No beer was given out) (Photo by Dave Chase)
Professor Jeffrey Byrd explains how a combination of materials including barley, grain, and water, are malted, roasted, and fermented to create beer. (No beer was given out) (Photo by Dave Chase)

In front of a large audience of St. Mary’s students, professors, and community members, College professors Jeffrey Byrd and Andy Koch presented the complicated science and subtle art behind beer brewing, as part of the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium Series, Jan. 17.

“It’s a full house today,” said microbiologist Dr. Byrd, after he and Chemistry department chair Dr. Koch were introduced by Physics department chair Dr. Charles Adler.  “How many of you came to learn how to make beer?”

As expected, but possibly to the disappointment of some of the audience members, Byrd and Koch were not giving out free samples during the lecture; the objective was to learn about the process of making alcoholic beverages at home, an enjoyable and surprisingly academic hobby in which both professors are well-practiced.

“So how can we use science to improve that overall product?” said Byrd.  A microbiologist, he began the lecture with the organismal side of the process: yeast fermentation.  Dr. Koch entered the lecture to discuss the chemistry behind fermentation, and how the different products formed during the process can affect the brew product.

The professors continued with a discussion of the process of brewing, which begins with barley malting.    “What you’re actually doing is taking the seeds and allowing them to germinate,” said Byrd.

The resultant barley, grain, and water mixture is dried, crushed, and roasted, a step that can lead to darker or lighter-colored beers based on the degree of roasting.  Afterwards, a “mash tun,” an insulated brewing vessel, exposes the barley enzymes to the generated starches, leading to the formation of a wort, referred to by Koch as the “sweet liquor goo” that will be further processed in later steps.

After malting, boiling the products in a kettle kills off unwanted organisms and creates conditions for further malt processing. The malt product evaporates during this procedure, which can lead to a loss of both the good and bad flavor compounds created, and “hops,” one of the most important ingredients of the process that add a recognizable bitterness to the beer, are added to the wort.

The product generated from the kettle is moved to a fermenter (in home-brewing, known as the Alepail, a bucket with a bubbler for carbon dioxide release), where yeast is added to the processed wort to begin the fermentation process.

“You use a particular yeast for the style you’re trying to generate,” said Byrd.  Each yeast culture undergoes fermentation differently, meaning that the same species of yeast can be used for different products and requires different fermentation reactants and conditions. After fermentation, the final product is lagered (stored) in cold temperatures for further flavor development.

Koch and Byrd concluded the presentation with final remarks about the process.  They recommend following traditional guidelines and procedures, knowing what is in the type of hops being used, and keeping a notebook detailing the procedure used so that the process can be repeated if desired.  “It’s a hobby,” said Koch.  “It’s scientific, but can have a great benefit,” said Byrd.

The Schaefer lecture hall remained packed for questions after the talk, ranging from brewing certain kinds of beer over others to how to avoid “skunking” the final product.

“I thought it was a really good lecture,” said Thomas Montgomery, a senior who attended the lecture.  “I found both sides of the topic really interesting.”

“I thought the lecture was thorough, and it was neat to see all of the aspects of brewing covered from start to finish,” said Elizabeth Bromley, a sophomore at the College.  “They were very entertaining and lively.”

Dr. Byrd began brewing beer with his father in 1976, as a father-son project.  Dr. Koch began in college, and took a stronger interest around ten years ago.  Both professors brew different styles of beer, but both seem to enjoy the art for both its academic benefit and social experience.

This lecture was the third of the NS&M Colloquium Series; the fourth, titled The World of the Future, will be presented as the 2010 Muller Lecture in the Sciences by College professor Charles Adler on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. in Daugherty-Palmer Commons.

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