There’s a lot of science behind the taste of America’s favorite alcoholic beverage. And microbiologists are playing a big part in shaping its flavor and color. With the popularity of craft beers, several local brewers are working with UCF College of Medicine researchers to reduce beer contamination and perfect the taste.
Dr. Sean Moore, associate professor of microbiology, has created the Applied Industry Microbiology research program that brings together student scientists, researchers and industries that use microbes in their products.
“We’re applying molecular biology to these industries,” Dr. Moore said. “Our goal is to work with craft beer companies to reduce and eliminate beer contamination and spoilage, and work with the service industry to help them determine when they have spoiled products. A better understanding of microbes and the role they play in food safety and contamination will also help guard the public from food-borne illnesses.” Drinking spoiled beer although not deadly, will leave a bad taste in your mouth and thousands of dollars in lost sales for the brewers.
Red Cypress Brewing in Winter Springs, Florida is one of the breweries that is working with Dr. Moore’s lab to develop systems to test and maintain fermentation standards so the company’s craft beer has a consistent taste and quality. They are able to identify the microbes that are impacting the beer’s taste and where they may have come from.
During brewing, grain is mashed and soaked in water which converts the starches to sugar. That liquid is boiled, hops are added and the liquid is cooled. Yeast is added, which converts the sugar in the liquid to alcohol. If the yeast doesn’t ferment properly or if other bacteria enter the liquid, the beer’s taste can be adversely affected. Fermentation is also used in other food processes like pickling vegetables and producing yogurt.
During the two-week beer fermentation process, Dr. Moore’s students visit the breweries and test samples, looking at whether fermentation is progressing, and checking for bacteria that shouldn’t be present. A dirty line or contaminated vessel can destroy hundreds of gallons of beer, a loss small breweries can’t afford.
“Yeast is the most important and most volatile part of brewing,” said Ryan Parker, founder of Red Cypress Brewing and a UCF alum. “Microbes and beer go hand-in-hand. There’s a big need for lab testing skills as the craft beer industry comes into its own in Florida. Science makes better beer and understanding the microbes give us the consistent quality we are looking for.”
Large breweries have on-site labs but Dr. Moore says molecular testing is also essential for smaller craft breweries to safeguard consumers and investors. But the industry partnership happened because Moore had another goal – help students leverage their science backgrounds to find work in industry. He said many of his UCF undergraduates don’t want to attend medical school or do basic science research. They want a way to use their science knowledge in a business setting and the craft beer market is giving them that opportunity.
Undergraduate Amanda Musgrave cultures the beer samples in petri dishes, with the microbes becoming visible to the naked eye after a few days. As a home brewer herself, Musgrave said wants to continue with the brewing industry when she graduates. “What’s not to like?” said Musgrave, who will lead the student beer analysis project next semester. “It’s the microbes that you can’t see that fascinate me – a whole other world we can explore.”
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