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July 9, 2015

Engineering the perfect beer

Enjoy beer in night club.

Science and craft beer brewing go hand in hand, with universities offering courses and even considering degrees in the art and craft of small-batch grain fermentation. “After all, alcohol is a solution,” was the motto of a recent University of South Florida chemical engineering department event celebrating the connection.

Craft beer brewing is just as popular in the kitchens and garages of faculty members in Pitt’s science departments and schools, including the homes of two Swanson School of Engineering faculty members. “Brewing has become very engineered,” says Dan Cole, and yet it’s still “part art form,” says Robert Parker. That’s why the pastime fits so well with their careers, they say.

Beer at its most basic is water, yeast, hops and malt. “It’s a good gadget thing,” using a lot of equipment, processes and measurements, says Cole, a faculty member in mechanical engineering and materials science. “It’s got the cooking aspect that appeals to engineers.” And, he adds, “If you keep everything clean, you’ve got to make a really big mistake to make a bad batch of beer.”

Says Parker, a faculty member in chemical and petroleum engineering: “It’s not some lab experiment that generates red-dyed water. It generates a completely usable product that may even be better than what you can buy.”

Science and craft beer brewing go hand in hand for engineering faculty members Robert Parker, left, and Dan Cole.

Science and craft beer brewing go hand in hand for engineering faculty members Robert Parker, left, and Dan Cole.

Parker took up the practice in 2000, when he joined the Pitt faculty, after a neighbor — a Carnegie Mellon faculty member — shared a homebrew kit he received as a present. By 2006, beer-making had become a more serious pursuit for Parker.

That’s also the year Cole joined the Swanson school and was introduced to the hobby by a friend. Now he and his wife brew a new beer for their anniversary parties. This November will be their 12th.

“We usually make a clone,” he says, using a recipe of an established, commercial beer. “We do this panicking,” realizing September is his busiest month, but that by fall he must brew for their anniversary.

Most beers are ales, which Cole favors. Ale is the beer yeast creates after basic fermentation. Lagers — generally lighter-colored beers — are created when beer spends time at a lower temperature, for which brewers need to buy a dedicated fridge. Neither man has ventured that far just yet.

Parker has tried producing lagers by placing brewed batches during the winter in the corner of his garage, which stays in the mid-40s, much like the German cellars where lagers originated. He also produces steam beers, which employ longer yeast fermentation at room temperature.

“To be honest, I am not a huge lager fan — except for my dog,” Cole says. He pauses. “My dog’s name is Lager.”

Although Cole named the results of a keg after his other dog, Perry (McPerry Scottish Ale), most of his efforts are simply labeled as “Homebrew” with a number. Parker has gotten more creative. Last winter he made a milk stout, a dark beer with lactose, and called it “White-Out Stout.” A dark Baltic porter earned the moniker “Zamboni Oil.” His Belgian India Pale Ale, using Trappist yeast from Belgium, was called “Ackbar’s IPA,” after the most famous line, “It’s a trap,” from Col. Ackbar in the Star Wars saga’s “Return of the Jedi.”

Parker brews new beer for two other occasions: Halloween, for which he once made Goblin Stopper, and the Heritage Brew Tours, which he holds each season except winter in his backyard and the yards of a few other neighbors who brew. He also invites other local homebrewers, which includes lots of colleagues.

“Almost my entire lab brews beer,” he says, as do his research collaborators from the medical school’s Department of Critical Care Medicine and the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine.


Brewing steps involve lots of specific engineering processes.

First, brewing is all about fluid dynamics, which is the flow of fluids through pipes. For instance, once the malt is steeped in water, called mashing, brewers must capture the sugars in water, called the wort. The wort is drained from the porridge-like malt remains. Too fast, and the pipes clog up. Too slowly and, well, who has that kind of time?

There is also lots of heat transfer, another basic engineering concept, from the boiling that forms the centerpiece of brewing to the chilling, which allows the beer to ferment.

“That’s most of mechanical engineering,” Cole says. Brewing also involves reaction engineering, which he calls “the cooking of brewing.” The right temperature draws out the carbohydrates and lets them break into smaller sugars, which form alcohol when interacting with yeast, as well as the larger sugars, which give the beer a better mouth feel — a less watery consistency.

If you’re not an engineer, he says, don’t let the jargon — particularly all the equipment names, from the old German, such as tuns and lautering — fool you into thinking craft beer brewing is complicated. It can be as complicated as any engineer cares to make it, he says. But, essentially, “You’ve got a pot, a bucket and a cooler.”

Cole tells beginners to pick up a five-gallon bucket and a two-and-a-half-gallon stock pot — and lots of soap to keep everything clean — “and you’re done. If you wanted to brew beer right now, the first place we would go is a Home Depot.” He brews in his kitchen and garage.

“Both of us could brew at the same time in this office,” he says.

“With room left over,” Parker says. His rig sits on a three-tiered industrial shelving unit in his garage, about 3 feet by 3 feet and perhaps 6 feet tall. On it are three connected containers: a lauter tun holding water on top; a mash tun in the middle, and a water boiling unit on the bottom.

Lessons centered on beer brewing haven’t filtered into Cole’s classes, which can involve rocket science, but the student project in Parker’s senior-level Dynamics and Control class requires them to devise how to turn raw materials into pasteurized, filtered beer. (While most homebrewed beer is in-effect sterilized by boiling, it is not pasteurized.)

Parker splits his class into small groups, who build dynamic models for different steps of the process and set production targets. Then these groups get together to coordinate the engineering of the entire project, creating a simulation of the beer production process.

It likely would be sticky to focus more undergraduate classes on anything involving alcohol, the pair allows. But, as Cole points out, beer was the drink of choice for even young people in pre-industrial days, when it was mistakenly thought to be fortifying, rather than merely less harmful than their untreated rivers and streams. By making beer, he points out, “You’ve now made water safe to drink.”

—Marty Levine  

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