Lab & Quality
When someone says “I work at a brewery,” the images that come to mind probably involve a guy with a beard hovering over a boil kettle sight glass, dumping bags of hops into aromatically malted liquid, maybe pulling samples out of a charred oak barrel, or moving recently filled kegs. All of these things happen, of course — in fact, they happen a lot. There is, however, a less-often romanticized, yet every bit as vital component to the commercial brewing process: the Lab. The unsung heroes of the modern craft brewery, the Laboratory and Quality Control teams create the foundation of consistency and nano-scale attention to detail that allows the recipes, ingredients and liquid to truly shine. Read on to discover why the spectrophotometer is as important—and even, dare we say, as sexy—as the fermentation tank, and why you should raise your next pint to the beer nerds testing and tasting behind-the-scenes.
“A non-brewer often takes for granted the possible variation in a given product.” – Jim Matt, Chief Science Officer
Originally a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, Jim Matt is a day-one ‘Geister, cutting his teeth as a home brewer before starting with our founders Bob and Bryant as Rhinegeist’s first lead brewer. Now he oversees the lab, returning to his scientific roots. As we’ve grown over the past five years, Jim’s seen first-hand what it takes to ensure brewing quality at different scales of production.
“In the early days, our beer was pretty consistent,” Jim says, “because two people were making it. Once we got the system down, the consistency of the process was very good. And then we started getting more hands in the pot, we’re doing quadruple brew days and started to diverge a bit, doing different processes on the fermentation part. Then the Braukon [brewing system] came on and that’s more automated, so things started to be more consistent, but there are still more hands in the pot.”
Ebbs and flows surely, but even amidst personnel and equipment changes, order wins the day.
“A non-brewer often takes for granted the possible variation in a given product,” said Jim. “It’s consistency of your raw materials, it’s consistency of your process…We’ve got a very consistent process now.”
“A delayed beer is forgiven, a bad beer is not.”
That’s how Austin Zanella, brewer and microbiologist at Rhinegeist, describes the stakes of quality checking.
Every tank of beer undergoes rigorous testing. First, we measure the specific gravity to monitor fermentation, then we check for diacetyl, a chemical compound known for buttery off-flavors. Next, we run a gene disc on the tank using a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is the same technology used in paternity testing. This gives us a DNA fingerprint of the liquid, showing any beer spoilage organisms, including yeast, that shouldn’t be there. We test early and often to remediate a bad tank. As a brewer, the last thing you want is for bad yeast to propagate through the brewery.
In the event unwanted microbes are found, we trigger our containment process. First, we identify and tag the microbe, in case it ever pops up again. It hurts to lose a day’s work, but it ensures quality and consistency.
Every branch of the brewery is hustling to put out the best possible product; our lab gives the support structure to let our brewers’ work shine.
“Your main focus is to make beer and get it out the door,” says Jim, “but the easiest quality check of all is tasting the product before it leaves the building.”
We’re fortunate to have a plethora of folks here at Rhinegeist, professionally trained and not, who have incredible palates for beer. We have 26 certified cicerones, and a dedicated sensory specialist, Travis Houston. Simply put, these people know beer. Every batch is tasted before release. Truth has its own dedicated tasting panel, comprised of ‘Geisters from across departments who check every single batch we brew. Any batch with off-flavors is held back to guarantee consistency.
While often the result of ingredients or process, off-flavors can appear at unexpected times for unexplained reasons, reminding us that brewing is an art just as much as it is a science. These flavors run the gamut, including everything from a hay or a barnyard smell, to sourness, to cheesiness from oxidation. Diacetyl, that buttery bugger, is another culprit.
Everyone has a different palate, which is why we have people from all over the brewery checking for these deviations. There’s a real excitement in the tasting panels, having someone from accounting sitting across from a lead brewer, both sampling the same beer. While one taster may not have the vocabulary to articulate exactly what’s on their tongue, their comments will trigger just the right expression for someone else, sparking a Proustian flash of childhood treats or decade-old homebrews that perfectly captures a beer’s character.
Thankfully, our brewing processes are dialed-in, so these off-flavors are rare, but when they appear our tasting teams sound the alarm.
A Meeting of the Minds
Every week, the Production, Quality and Sales teams gather for a check-in. It’s a chance to get away from email, meet face to face and ensure that each arm of the brewery is on the same page. Quality knows the brew schedule, production knows if any batches are flagged and Sales can give and receive input on volume. Communication is streamlined and a stronger culture is built across departments.
“Problems are humanized,” says Matt Steinke, Director of Sales. “Sales doesn’t have to guess why a beer is delayed, Production knows what’s happening in the sales market, and Quality can process feedback from the field.”
Our lab is both a luxury and a necessity. The myriad machines we use are not absolutely required to make a high-quality product, but they are required to maintain quality at scale. This year we’ll brew over 100,000 barrels of beer, and the only way we can know each batch will be up to our standards is through an investment in quality. Although our aim is to address potential problems before they occur, they can occasionally slip through the cracks. If you ever experience an issue with our beer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org—you are also a vital part of quality testing.
Also, developing our lab is fun! Discussing lab equipment and production schedules can get dry, but our quality program offers us so much more. It’s the ultimate chance to geek out about beer. We get to dive into the weeds, studying minute changes in hop character and alcohol content, discovering how aging affects cans- anything we can think of is prime for experimentation.
From outside the brewery, the less the lab is noticed, the better they’re functioning. Your favorite beer tastes like your favorite beer—no need to think about it. But for us, that simplicity comes from a multi-year effort to build our quality program. We get to study the science of liquid. Every branch of the brewery is hustling to put out the best possible product; our lab gives the support structure to let our brewers’ work shine.