In the Fight for Consistently Good Beer, Avery Brewing Makes a Move

Boulder Stand reporter Ted Phillips poses in front of a vat of waste at Avery Brewing's current facility. (Photo/ Avery McGaha)

CU graduate student Ted Phillips poses in front of a vat of waste at Avery Brewing’s current facility. (Photo/ Avery McGaha)

By Avery McGaha

Oxygen is one of beer’s many mortal enemies. If too much oxygen finds its way into a commercial brewing tank, a batch of that company’s signature craft ale – worth tens of thousands of dollars – could transform into a vat of disgusting, worthless slosh.

But as the craft industry grows, commercial brewers are finding that investing in science, and the staff and facilities to conduct careful monitoring and research, can prevent many subtle and expensive mistakes.

The fight against these costly errors has driven Avery Brewing Co., a Boulder-based brewery in operation for over twenty years, to embark on a $27 million project to build a much larger facility. Located just west of Gunbarrel, the new 95,922-square-foot facility will provide twice the production capacity of the current space, as well as corporate offices and a restaurant.

But the most important change for customers is one they can’t see: The facility will expand Avery’s ability to control quality. That’s because making good-tasting beer, and making it consistently, requires a sophisticated suite of tests and controls. And that means a lot of space for scientists, instruments, and incubators.

Sara Ferber, a quality control chemist for Avery Brewing, said the new space highlights the importance of chemistry and biology in the brewing process.

“I think it surprises people that we have as many scientists as we do,” she said.

That includes five full-time scientists, experts in microbiology, molecular biology, and chemistry. And right now, those scientists have little more than a closet from which to work.

Their lab is about the size of a college dorm room, and packed with similar biological contaminants. In this tiny room, thankfully encased by windows, high lab tables surround the perimeter. That cuts the room’s walkable space nearly in half.

On the far wall is a bright red incubator – plastered with hilarious, cut-out caricatures of colleagues, reassembled with painter’s tape – that helps yeast samples grow. The other walls are covered in laptops, centrifuges, flasks and tubes. Some instruments are stacked on top of chemistry textbooks, others stuffed beneath fume hoods. Moving around in this space is impossible without scraping off sticky-notes, filled with equations and coffee stains.

One does get the sense that the scientists still manage to have fun. Many of the cluttered instruments have names, spread lovingly on each with a label maker. One of the most valuable tools is what they call “Contamatron,” which detects even the smallest presence of ATP, the energy source molecule present in every living cell.

Swipe a sample from inside a freshly cleaned brewing tank, and the brewers will know if there are still harmful bacteria living in it. If so, they’ll clean the tank until they cannot detect a single contaminant. That knowledge puts brewers at ease.

“It helps them sleep at night,” Ferber said.

In addition to lab space, the new facility will also house a pasteurizer, a machine designed to kill bacteria in the finished product. Ferber said that will be crucial to preventing the wrong strain of yeast from floating around in the air out of one beer – a sour beer, for example, which employs a special kind of yeast – and contaminating another.

That’s an easy mistake to make, if you’re not careful. But with the new space, Ferber and her colleagues will have the resources to be more careful, and consistent, than ever.

“We’re probably going to make better beer,” she said. “And we’re okay with that.”

Death Clock

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National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

By Mollie Putzig

Life after death may reveal when someone died, and it might even help catch a killer.

Normally, clues like body temperature and insect larvae help forensic scientist determine time of death. But microbes, bacterial organisms found by the trillions throughout our bodies, may offer a more precise measurement–especially for longer time periods.

Some people donate their bodies to this research. Their corpses lie in the tall grass of a pine forest at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, commonly called a human body farm. Scientists take samples of their skin and the soil beneath them to study how communities of microbes change as bodies decompose.

Jessica Metcalf, an evolutionary biologist working in the Knight Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, researches the postmortem microbiome, those tiny organisms that decompose us after we die. By tracking these organisms over time, she’s building a microbial clock to calculate the time since something, or someone, died.

On a normal day, Metcalf studies the microbial communities of dead mice. By scrutinizing the organisms living on their skin, she can calculate the rodents’ time of death within a few days.

“With this experiment what we found is that we could actually build a model and predict with really, really high accuracy how long an unknown sample had been dead,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf recently visited the body farm to determine if humans have a microbial clock like she’d seen in the mice. She said the microbes in the skin and soil samples from the body farm look promising.

“One of the things we’re trying to understand is, ‘how much of the decomposer communities associated with the mice are shared with the decomposer communities associated with the humans out in Texas?’” Metcalf said.

She and Sybil Bucheli, a forensic entomologist with Sam Houston State University who works at the body farm, hope their research of living organisms that grow on the dead can someday assist criminal investigations.

Every person has a unique microbiome, a bacterial signature that can’t be forged, according to research from the Argonne National Lab. Everywhere we go, we leave behind some of the living community that makes up our microbiome, like a time-stamped fingerprint.

This could allow crime investigators to identify the last people to contact a body before or after the person died.

Metcalf is conducting a second study of decomposing mice and their microbes. In her first experiment she placed 40 dead mice on boxes of soil. To make sure the only difference between them was the amount of time since death, she used mice that were all males of the same age and breed that were fed the same food.

“We just want to understand if there’s a pattern there before we get to the question of, alright, how do these various variables interrupt it?” Metcalf said.

Once she found evidence of a microbial clock, she repeated the experiment using various soils to see if soil type affected which microbes grew. She found that placing mice on desert, grassland or alpine soil didn’t significantly alter microbe growth.

She also tested the soils 10, 20 and 30 days after removing the mice, to see if postmortem microbes remain in soil over time.

“They did,” Metcalf said. “So that’s a big part of our second paper.”

If distinct human decomposer microbes remain in the soil, then soil samples might even help locate a buried body.

That’s still a long way off, she said, but Metcalf is confident that studying the life that depends on death could lead scientists to a microbial death clock.

Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival: Great Bear Wild by Ian McAllister

In his latest book, Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest, photographer Ian McAllister documents the fragility and the rarity of British Columbia’s temperate rainforest, and the interdependence between ocean and forest.

McAllister has been photographing the rainforest for 25 years through his Pacific Wild foundation. From his unique vantage point, he’s seen the forest change firsthand, both for the better, and for the worse.

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