Moving to Australia from the UK was great, except for the beer. Like many scientists, I moved across the world to follow my work, and in 2001 I joined the University of Melbourne to work on bone and muscle development and injury in horses, sheep and cattle, as well as humans. This began a really interesting research career for me, and I’ve been here ever since. At the time I missed the real ales of the UK and, having done some brewing previously as a biological sciences undergraduate, I started brewing my own English-style ales— necessity is the mother of invention.
I put my knowledge of biology to work, and created a nano-brewery in my garage. My research usually involves understanding biological process – how muscles and bones grow, and how muscle and bone function goes awry when disease or injury occur. Correct muscle and bone development is a finely tuned balance of the right ingredients, like proteins and minerals coming together in the right order, at the right time. Like muscle growth, brewing is also a finely tuned biological process and I find it interesting and rewarding to understand how it works, and tweak to my taste!
Beer has four main ingredients: malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Each of these ingredients contributes to its flavour and aroma. Water is the largest component and its minerals have a large impact on flavour. Untreated, the soft water of Melbourne, which contains few minerals, is best suited to pale beers such as pilsners, whereas harder water such as that from Burton upon Trent in the UK is ideal for hoppy pale ale beers. These days, however, minerals can be added or removed to make the water ideal for brewing any style of beer, regardless of origin.
Malted barley provides the sugar that yeast converts to ethanol by fermentation. The sugars also provide sweetness, which is usually balanced by bitter chemicals found in the hop plants. During the malting process grains are heated either to dry them or to roast them. This forms a large range of colour and aroma compounds, depending on the temperature used.
Hops contain essential oils that contribute to the aroma and flavour of beer, determining whether it is citrusy, spicy, floral or herbal. The balance between malt sweetness and hop bitterness helps prevent beer becoming either cloyingly sweet or unpalatably bitter.
Finally, in addition to producing alcohol, yeast produces a range of fermentation by-products that can give beer a fruity, spicy or even a butterscotch-like flavour.
The final flavour of beer is determined by combining these flavour compounds. And the best thing about brewing is, with some basic scientific knowledge, you can develop the taste to be exactly what you like. You only have to think about a rich roasted flavour of a dark stout, the bitter citrusy flavour of American India pale ale or the fruity, spicy flavour of a German wheat beer to understand how the flavours and ingredients differ between styles of beer.
Craft beers are gaining popularity in Australia, growing from only a handful of breweries 15 years ago to more than 200 catering to all styles and tastes. Many of our students have grown up with this boom and have an interest in the industry. It seemed a great time to create a new subject that combined all aspects of craft beer including science, agriculture, marketing and business studies.
I have been responsible for two new breadth subjects called Beer: Theory and Craft. My colleague Chris Barnes, who is a professional wine maker and viticulture lecturer, runs the existing wine breadth subjects and has been an enormous help in this. The first subject focuses on beer as a product and the brewing industry, covering core aspects of the science and the sensory characteristics of brewery products. The business aspects of the subject are taught by Associate Professor Andre Sammartino from the Faculty of Business and Economics.
In the second subject, students stay at Dookie, our working farm and science hub near Shepparton, where our beautiful old winery has been fitted out with mini breweries. Students make beer and learn more in-depth about brewing processes including mashing, hopped wort production and fermentation. Once the beer has matured, the packaging process and operation and marketing of commercial breweries is covered through guest lecturers from industry. Students are then assessed on the beer they produce and package, and on a business proposal for a new craft brewery.
No matter their background, I think everyone likes creating something, and in this case it’s beer. I meet budding historians and economists who had never thought of themselves as being interested in science or agriculture before. Through beer they become interested in how things are grown and processed and that has been the first step for some into a career in the brewing industry.
Just like it was for me, their hobby may be the start of a new career.
As told to Nerissa Hannink, University of Melbourne
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