Putting science into the art of brewing

By BeertownNZ Wed, 08 Feb 2017 National

US blogger and brewer Marshall Schott likes asking questions.

His blog – Brülosophy: they who drink beer will think beer – takes an experimental approach to different aspects of brewing. Different techniques are compared, the results are taste-tested by a range of beer drinkers to see if they can detect differences, and the outcome is given a statistical rating.

This exBEERiments project has found some interesting results. The impact of age on hops? Big. Grain crush size? Not so big. Yeast comparisons, malt comparisons, techniques, off-flavours – it’s all there.

The detailed results both intrigue and influence homebrewers, and Marshall will be a guest speaker at the New Zealand Home-brewers’ Conference next month. Beertown.NZ asked Marshall about his experimental approach.

Beertown.NZ: The exBEERiments project takes a sceptical crack at a lot of widely accepted brewing conventions. What motivated you to test time-honoured methods?

Marshall Schott: I completely understand how someone might presume my interest in testing conventional brewing methods was motivated by a deep-seated desire to disprove, though skeptical I may be, that’s truly not the case at all. 

I’d started brewing nearly a decade before I even considered delving into the exBEERimental world I live in today, my methods aligning precisely with what we’ve all been told are ‘best practices’. And I was cool with it, my beers were coming out totally fine, I really had no good reason to question anything. 

There are two main things that really pushed me to shift my focus on experimentation, the first being that my good friend and brewing mate had recently moved out of town, which made brewing just feel different in many ways. It was this that ultimately led to the second point, which is that I was getting bored with brewing for brewing’s sake, making a beer all my friends thought was amazing lost its meaning, and I realized competing did little for me, even when I did well. I knew that if I wanted remain in this hobby that I’d invested so much time, energy, and money into, I had to do something to keep it interesting, so I started experimenting. 

Very quickly, I realized that throwing caution to the wind and engaging in practices universally accepted as bad, for comparison to similar beers made using accepted methods, was invigorating, it gave me something fun to look forward to. To this day, I still get excited to analyze the results of each new exBEERiment we do. And just to be clear, my expectation when performing my first few exBEERiments wasn’t to disprove anything, but rather see for myself why certain methods were bad.

B: Do you ever try to reproduce the results of an ExBEERiment? After all, there’s a lot of variables involved and the result might be a one-off.

MS: A single data point is interesting and may suggest an effect, but replication is the best way to get to more solid answers. Given the seemingly infinite variables in the brewing process that we are interested in testing, repeating exBEERiments hasn’t been a huge focus for us, though there are a few we’ve gone back to numerous times including fermentation temperature and water chemistry. As we continue down this path, we absolutely plan to readdress many of the variables we’ve already tested, some precisely as they were performed originally and others with small tweaks we think may have an impact.

B: There’s been discussion in New Zealand over the lack of female beer judges. On one hand we have the argument “there’s no such thing as a girls’ beer”, on the other the argument that women offer a different perspective, which is under-represented. Have you ever run experiments to test if gender does influence beer tasting?

MS: The obvious lack of women in the brewing world in general is a major bummer and really ought to become an area of focus. I’m not sure what the best approach to making brewing more appealing, or perhaps less unappealing, to women is, but I’m all for doing whatever it takes! As for the judging component, I do tend to see more men at the judging tables than females, though it seems to me that’s starting to change a bit, which is great. We haven’t published any analyses of triangle test performance as a function of participant sex, but based on my completely unscientific observations over the last couple of years, both men and women appear to perform similarly.

B: Popular Mechanics called Brülosophy the ‘Myth Busters of Beer’. Do you get to blow stuff up?

MS: It’s a moniker we can’t seem to shake, understandably, though I can assure you our intent isn’t to bust myths, as I strongly belief the methods we test did indeed serve a real purpose at some point. I may have to consider an exBEERiment involving some type of explosive, I’m sure it’d be a real blast.

B: And last question – it’s a long trip to New Zealand, so what else are you hoping to see and do while you're in the neighbourhood?

MS: My wife will be joining me on the trip, which we extended at the front end to see more of that part of the world. We’ll be starting in Sydney, spending a few days sightseeing there before heading over to Wellington where we’ll be meeting up with a friend who lives in Petone. We’ll be taking a ferry over Cook Strait then road tripping to Nelson for the conference. I’m beyond excited for this experience and look forward to drinking great beer with equally as great folks from the Land of the Long White Cloud. Cheers!

The New Zealand Home-brewers' Conference is happening from Friday 24 to Sunday 26 March at the Trafalgar Pavilion, Nelson. Go here now for tickets and more information.

By BeertownNZ Wed, 08 Feb 2017 National