If there are two things we love at CMBC… well, that’s our fans. (We love you guys. You’re the best.)
Okay. We love lots of things at CMBC. One of them is new toys. (We love new toys. They’re the best.)
We just got a doozie of a new toy at CMBC, and it’s really going to put the nerd into “beer nerd”. It’s called a Cellometer, and it’s like Hank at his fermentation-nerdiest crossed with Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club with a heaping dose of pocket protector and all wrapped up neatly in some headgear. At math camp.
So, what is a Cellometer and what does it do? In the simplest terms and the most convenient definition: it’s a piece of machinery that counts cells. As you probably know, yeast is a very basic single-celled organism, and they’re a little on the fragile side. The nature of the beast is that our harvested yeast slurry will contain some dead (or “non-viable”) cells. The only way to tell how much of the slurry was viable was by looking at it under a microscope and doing our best to count those little buggers.
Now, we can take a sample, shoot it up with two colors of fluorescent dye, and some of that dye will make the living (or “viable”) cells light up, and the rest of it will make the non-viable cells light up. From there, we put the sample in this bad boy, and, with a combination of a fluorescent-sensitive camera and a PC, it counts the cells for us, giving us a total count and a percentage of viability.
And the one we’re getting — the Nexcelom Cellometer X2 — is pretty killer. “The operator can see a preview of the sample as the computer sees it to ensure that it is correct and it is counting all of the cells that should be counted,” says Director of Brewing Operations Jimmy Valm. “So while it eliminates much of the human error associated with cell-counting, we can also eliminate the stringent restrictions of computer-error as well.”
Accurate cell counts of yeast samples are essential to making good and consistent beer. On our end, we really just make wort — it’s the yeast that turns that wort into heavenly, heavenly beer. Inconsistency in the amount of yeast added to the wort — a.k.a. the “pitching rate” — can cause quite a bit of variation in the taste of a specific brew.
“For example, under-pitching will stress out the yeast, which will lead to a sluggish fermentation, which in turn can result in a lower fermentation temperature, which alters the production rate of esters and phenols,” Jimmy patiently explains. “Low pitching rates also result in more oxygen being available to each individual yeast cell, which means they will spend more time and effort turning sugars into new yeast cells (reproducing) instead of producing alcohol, so the ABV ends up low.”
We really can’t blame the yeasties for choosing reproduction over work, but a low ABV is simply uncalled for.
This machine is going to help our production in a multitude of ways. We can ensure that the yeast we harvest is healthy and that subsequent batches of brew are properly fermented. We can track the generations of yeast and their overall viability, allowing us to plan our ordering a little better.
Most importantly, however, we’ll be sure that we’re pitching the correct number of viable cells into every batch of beer. That means that your beer is as good as it possibly can be, dear beer drinker, every single time.
The Cellometer — which we’re thinking of calling CeeLo — will live on the laboratory table at HQ, forever connected by USB to one of the computers over there. Jimmy and Head Brewer Brian Hink will be running the tests. “At the start, we will keep it to just us two so we can be assured the tests themselves are being done the same way each time so we have consistent results,” Jimmy says. “If we have numerous people running the tests, then small variations in the sample handling can result in large variations of the results.”
The dream is to one day have a separate lab that’s a little more extensive than a table set up on the side of the brewery, with a full-time Laboratory Technician running things. So, if you understood all of this blog — even before we wrote it — that could be you!
In the meantime, Jimmy, Brian, CeeLo, and the rest of us will keep plugging away, making your favorite beer. Stop down and say hi!