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.”