We’ve definitely got some fun toys at the brewery.
That new canning line is awesome — it makes canning beer so much faster. Our centrifuge is pretty cool, too — it gets the beer cleaned up, looking pretty, and tasting fantastic. Innovation Director Brian Hink gets to have a lot of fun with our pilot system, developing tasty new beers for you fine folks, and our beer engine opened up a whole world of new beers to try in our Tasting Room. Even Craig and Polly probably have a lot of fun on our forklifts.
(Okay, that last one’s a lie. Work safe, work smart.)
Yet, we’ve got a tiny, little room off to the side of the brewery floor that you might not notice if someone doesn’t point it out to you, and the most fun — and expensive — toys in the brewery are in there.
That’s our lab. And Lab Manager Lauren Appleman spends her days cooped up in there, playing with those awesome toys.
And she got a shiny, new toy over the past few months — okay, it’s not shiny — but her new Gene-Up from bioMérieux is making it easier for her to ensure that each can that leaves our warehouse is of the highest quality.
There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re brewing beer, mostly because we don’t actually brew beer. We brew wort. Yeast turns the wort into beer, and those little yeasties have minds of their own. Sometimes, they’ll invite some of their friends to the party, and, kinda like that group of friends you stopped hanging out with in high school because they took things waaaay too far, those friends can do a lot of damage.
Essentially, we need to know if those guys are in our beer. Primarily we’re looking for Lactobacillus and Pediococcus — two microorganisms that we use in sour beers but can do some serious damage in a batch of typical beer. We don’t want them in a batch of Cape May IPA, for example.
So, Lauren and our Lab Technician Matt Allen will test the batch to make sure it’s clean. She’ll pull a sample while it’s still in the fermenter and give it a test.
“That way, if there are any issues, we’ll catch it before it makes its way through and we spend a lot of time and money and effort in canning something that we could have found out was bad, and we can find it before it contaminates everything else,” she explains. “Which is a not-fun part of the job.”
We would have to spend a lot of time and energy tracking that down. Luckily, thanks to the hard work of everyone in the brewery, that pretty much never happens around here. But, of course, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
In addition to testing it in the fermenter, Lauren will pull a few cans while we’re canning. We’ll grab a can from the beginning of the run and one from the end and give them a test, as well. Along the way, we’ll pull a six-pack from each pallet — that way, if the can from the beginning of the line is clean and the can from the end of the line is contaminated, we can figure out when throughout the canning run things went wrong.
“If we get a positive result for contamination in any of them, we can start tracing back,” she explains.
We also keep a six-pack from each run until the best-by date that we calculate, so that if there’s any negative feedback from you fine folks, we can give it a test and figure out what went wrong.
After she takes the sample, she’ll spin it down in her own little mini-centrifuge, getting rid of all of the liquid, leaving behind a little pebble of solids — yeast particles, hop solids, and… whatever else might be in there, we hope nothing.
Then, she drops the pebble of solids into a liquid buffer, dissolving it, then adds the liquid to the tube with the reagent and pops it all into the Gene-Up.
“Basically, it comes with reagents — these little tubes in here,” she explains, essentially a liquid chemical compound. “You put your sample in with the reagents and they have a specific coding for DNA.”
During the testing process, the Gene-Up puts the samples through a bunch of very rapid heating and cooling cycles. When it heats, the DNA breaks apart. You may remember from high-school biology that DNA looks like a double helix — a twisted ladder circling around itself. When it breaks them apart, we’re left with two half-ladders cut down the middle.
“These reagents have specific markers, so if you have a positive, they’ll bind together,” she explains.
These “markers” react to the presence of a specific gene — a gene that’s only in the DNA of those messy bacteria that we don’t want — and it’ll stick those two pieces back together. Then, the machine “amplifies” these positives by making millions of copies of that DNA, which the machine detects and Lauren can see on her screen.
“The reagent has a fluorescence that the machine detects,” she says. “So the more of these bound-together strips of DNA that are in there, the more they’re going to fluoresce.”
The Gene-Up will also detect hop-resistant strains of Lacto and Pedio. You may remember that hops were originally added to beer as a preservative — IPAs are India Pale Ales even though they were an English style of beer: they needed the excessive amount of hops in them to survive the trip from Liverpool (or Manchester or London or wherever) to British-owned India.
But, bacteria are smart — and getting smarter all the time. For example, right now we’re dealing with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and little buggers that can survive our best anti-bacterial hand sanitizers and cleaning products. That’s because, over time and in large enough populations, they’re programmed to survive. So, they find ways around our drugs and our lotions.
“We’re looking for Lacto and Pedio,” Lauren says, “but some of them have a hop-resistant gene so that they can survive in beer. Generally, the hoppier a beer is, the less susceptible it is to spoilage.”
In addition, the Gene-Up can detect wild yeast — a few strains of Brettanomyces. Believe it or not, there are little yeasties flying all around you right now, and most of them will wreak havoc on a batch of beer. They’re microscopic, so you can’t see them, but they’re there. They’re everywhere. And, as you might imagine, there are more of them flying around a brewery than there are flying around your desk at work. (Unless you, too, work at a brewery. In which case, awesome! Let’s hang out sometime!)
The Gene-Up can run up to 96 tests at once, which is way more than we need, but we’ve done up to 36 at a time when we’re testing individual barrels in our Barrel Aged Series.
Our old Invisible Sentinel did basically the same processes as the new machine but only returned a positive or a negative after waiting for two-and-a-half hours. With the new Gene-Up, Lauren can monitor the results in real-time.
“The old one, you’d wait two-and-a-half hours and get back a what looks like a pregnancy test,” Lauren says. “One line, two lines. Positive or negative. It looks exactly like a pregnancy test. But with the new one, this is in real-time, so you can watch your results happen in real-time.”
Lauren showed us some of the wild-yeast tests she ran on White Caps.
“It looks really confusing,” she says. “This one is diastaticus, which can be really nasty. This is one that can lead to exploding cans. It’s a variant of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is typical brewers’ yeast. It’s very difficult to detect via microscope, but it will hang out for a while, and you think everything’s fine, but it can still get through. So, those sugars that are still there, diastaticus will break down, but, since it’s in a sealed can, you’ll have exploding cans. That’s no good.”
The prep-work for each test is about a half-hour, then Lauren is catching up on paperwork and monitoring the screen for any spikes.
“I look at it occasionally,” she says. “I probably should stop doing that because it’s not good for my stress levels. However, that’s the benefit of it being real-time. If all of a sudden it spikes really high, I can put a stop to the packaging process.”
Lauren and Matt are our last line of defense against problems in our beer, assuring us — and you — that every can of Coastal Evacuation, Devil’s Reach, or Always Ready that you find on shelves out in the field are of the highest quality.
Be sure to check out our Beer Finder to find a location near you. You wouldn’t want all of their hard work to go to waste.