When you open your brewery and start making beer, you’ll probably find that you can get away without any detailed analysis conducted in a brewery quality lab.
I mean, you’ve put in the hard work, you’ve built the brewery and of course, you know your beer.
You’re even the person undertaking all of the brewing and packaging so of course you’ve got a handle on it.
But as your brewery grows – both in output and in the number of staff – you’ll need to consider setting up your own quality lab.
Having a quality lab is vital in today’s competitive beer market as it gives you the brewer the information you need to be able to make decisions that directly affect beer quality and consistency.
After all – your consumers depend on you to create high-quality, consistent beer.
That’s why I always say, “Your beer is your brand!”
But often when I speak to brewers about setting up their lab, usually the conversation leaps directly into microbiological analysis.
That’s getting too nerdy – too fast!
While this is important, this is just one aspect that your brewery’s quality lab will need to analyse.
In this article, I outline the 4 parts of your brewery quality lab and how to get started.
1 – Raw Materials and Packaging Lab
Your beer is only as good as the raw materials that go into making it.
And that goes for packaging too because who likes cans of beer with the seams popping?
Your Raw Materials and Packaging lab conducts analysis on your raw materials beyond, say, the level your malt supplier gives you when they give you your Certificate of Analysis when you order malt.
With raw materials such as malt, hops and yeast, they are organic products that can vary from crop to crop.
As perishable, agricultural products, they are also prone to damage due to poor storage and transportation – just like your beer – so it’s important that you’re across what’s happening with your ingredients.
Even if you’re on top of your raw materials and your beer, what about the packaging it goes into?
Is that bottle cap on tight enough?
Is the paper stock and glue for your labels adequate going to peel off under certain conditions such as refrigeration?
Are your cans double-seamed according to the manufacturers specifications?
Does that sour beer you brewed meet your can manufacturer’s specification for minimum pH and acidity?
A proper testing regime for your raw materials and packaging will ensure that you have a consistent product that is packed well and is fit for use.
It’s not difficult to get started with your Raw Materials and Packaging lab either – you can get started with this today by simply tasting each batch of malt as it’s delivered and rejecting it if it doesn’t look or taste right.
2 – Chemical Lab
The next consideration is how your quality lab conducts chemical analysis.
Chemical analysis is measurement of chemical compounds in your water, wort and beer.
These might include analyses such as:
- Specific Gravity. Sure, we measure it all the time when monitoring fermentation but it is, in fact, part of the chemistry of beer.
- Brewery Water. Brewery mains water mineral profile such as Chloride, Sulfate, Magnesium and Carbonate (and how it changes over time). There’s not much point targeting a water profile for your next beer if you don’t understand what your brewery’s base water profile is in the first place.
- International Bitterness Units (IBUs) of your wort and beer. What is the hop utilisation of your brew kettle? It’s not going to be the same as your theoretical IBUs from your recipe development software. Baseline your IBUs for each beer you make. Typically, IBUs are measured with a Spectrophotometer.
- Wort Analysis. Does your wort have enough FAN (Free Amino Nitrogen) for the yeast to thrive? And how does your mash program affect the sugar make-up of your wort?
- Alcohol by Volume. Accurate measurement of your beer’s ABV using Near Infrared or an Alcolyzer – way more accurate than using a formula based on gravity shift.
- Wort And Beer Colour. Each new malt crop may change the colour of your beer. Think your consumers won’t notice your beer changing its colour over time? Think again.
- Off-flavours such as diacetyl, acetaldehyde and ethyl acetate. Although your sensory panel may pick these up, only proper analysis showing concentration will give you a definitive answer.
Much of a beer’s specification comes out of your Chemistry Lab but unfortunately, much of the equipment required to run your own Chemistry Lab can be quite expensive.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that you don’t need to buy this expensive equipment!
You can outsource your Chemical Lab work such as Rockstar Brewer Labs then insource it again later when your budget allows.
3 – Microbiological Lab
As brewers, we want to make sure that only our brewer’s yeast is the dominant micro-organism in our brewery.
Any sign of wild yeast or spoilage bacteria means that we put our product at risk of picking up off-flavours.
But where do you start when you want to do micro analysis in your brewery?
Often, the quickest and easiest way to start a brewery micro lab is to monitor for Lactic Acid Bacteria (Lactobacillus) and Pediococcus – the two most common brewery spoilage micro-organisms.
Lately, the issue of Saccharomyces var Diastaticus is also of interest to brewers as it can cause over-attenuation and gushing of kegs, bottles and cans.
The job of the Micro Lab is to detect the presence of spoilage micro-organisms and, when a positive result is attained, identification of the micro-organism so that it can be dealt with.
Detecting micro-organisms can be done in different ways:
Plating of samples on various media. Different agar media that encourages the growth of the target micro-organism while inhibiting the growth of others helps to identify if there’s an issue. This can be done by direct plating or by filtering a wort or beer sample via membrane to extract micro-organisms. The trouble with plating is that although it’s cheap to conduct, it is slow as the micro-organisms need to be grown.
PCR Analysis aka Polymerase Chain Reaction. This is a modern technique that analyses a segment of the target micro-organism’s DNA in order to detect its presence. The good news is that PCR is super-fast to get a result! The bad news is that PCR equipment can be expensive to procure and run.
If you want to get started with setting up your own simple micro lab, we’ve got a course coming soon that’ll teach you just that.
Whatever form of micro analysis you undertake in your brewery, you need to ensure that the entire production process is constantly monitored – not just packaged product – because you might have a dirty oxygenation stone on your heat exchanger.
4 – Sensory Lab
This is probably the most overlooked part of a small brewery’s lab but it’s the most important.
A well trained sensory panel can detect off-flavours in beer as well as ensuring that your product remains true to its brand for consistency batch after batch.
Your sensory panel will be analysing appearance, aroma, flavour, body, mouthfeel and bitterness.
Part of the job of being a brewer is to have the skills to be able to objectively smell and taste beer.
If something’s not right – especially if your industry peers bring it to your attention – there’s no point in getting defensive about it or glossing over it – it’s your job to find out what happened and why so that you continuously improve.
Take each bit of feedback as a positive thing – after all, it’s the first step to making your beer even better!
And it’s not just about tasting the finished product either, it’s about undertaking sensory analysis of your beer right the way through your production process.
This might mean conducting regular sensory analysis on your water, wort and beer.
Consider what your product is supposed to look, smell and taste like, write it down and make sure you evaluate your product against this description.
The simplest way you can get started is to conduct organoleptic diacetyl testing towards the end of fermentation to ensure you don’t get the dreaded diacetyl in your product.
An of course, you should objectively evaluate each batch of beer in tank before you package it and note your observations.
Reactive vs Proactive Lab Analysis
When you’re starting out with lab analysis, more often that not it’s because the issue has been forced upon you as something has gone wrong with your beer out in the trade that has brought it to your attention.
Getting a reactive test done on faulty product gives you the answer as to what went wrong but it doesn’t tell you where or how things went wrong.
That’s where proactive laboratory work comes in.
Proactive lab work means setting specifications around each of the four labs for each of your beers and ensuring that your products comply.
This allows you to get a handle on things before they go heinously wrong.
And – to be honest – as a brewer, working in the lab is not only good for your product but it’s also a lot of fun!
By ensuring that everything is in compliance right the way through production, you can be confident that, when the beer leaves your brewery, that it’s within spec and that it meets your consumers expectations – they love that sort of thing!
And don’t be afraid to reject a batch because it’s out of compliance – it’s cheaper to dump a batch of beer than deal with the damage to your brand
If you’re looking to get started with setting up your lab, here at the Rockstar Brewer Academy, we give you all the options such as:
- You can outsource some or all of your lab analysis while you get started.
- We can teach you to set up your own lab, and
- We can provide you with advisory services on setting up your brewery’s own quality lab.
These are all benefits of becoming a member of the Rockstar Brewer Academy.
As always, my door is always open so feel free to reach out.