Let's go to the micro-lab!


Let's go to the micro-lab!

So here it is my friends, the long awaited trip deep into the inner sanctum of New Belgium Micro-Biology Lab (not sure if I should capitalize micro and biology (or lab), but I did (it seems important)).

So my morning started as usual, a stop at the coffee maker, another quick stop at the time clock, then I proceeded right into the deep recesses of the brewery looking for the scientific type to guide me through the goings on in our Micro-Biology lab.  I found just the guy, Cody.  I started off hot, just firing questions at him, thinking that this would lead him to believe that I understand this subject in anyway at all, and through this very intense succession of questions I came to a couple of question/answers combos that seem relevant to today's subject: what exactly is the importance of the micro lab?  His was a two fold response, fold one: yeast propagation.  Fold two: contamination detection. And, would I look smart in a lab coat? Cody's answer: most likely, not.

Let's start off with fold two of question/answer combo one, contamination dectection.  This is a very important aspect of the biologist and their job.  Anytime something (let's say wort (remember wort?)) comes in contact with something else (say the next batch of wort) it has to be tested.  The scientists are testing this meeting to make sure both things are clean, and by clean I mean not contaminated (meaning other other yeast strains).  Yeast is a little bug (micro-flora) that is floating all around us and it can be a tricky little guy, sneaking around corners and finding it's way into things.  And it is important to only put things into the beer that we mean to, if something does sneak its way in the flavor could change dramatically.  And it is important to mention here that if we were to get some sort of contamination the only thing to be effected is flavor, because of the low ph values, and the alcohol content there really isn't anything that can grow in beer that could harm you.  Also hops is a strong antimicrobial agent that further restricts the growth of pathogens.  So it is the biologists job to go ahead and test everything, and through this barrage of testing we can ensure that our Fat Tire tastes just how Fat Tire (or whichever brand) should taste every time (you fine people have a fickle palette).  So the testing is continuous and extremely thorough and we have fantastic scientists at the business end of those testing tools getting the job done.

Now let's double back and talk about fold number one.  Yeast proagation.  We have several in house yeast strains that make up our delicious portfolio of beers and each and everyone of them starts the same way, on a slide.  The that slide is grown into what is called a slant.  Here is Cody displaying a slant:

From that slant the biologist takes a small amount of the white foamy stuff on top and places it into 250ml of wort.  Now this is normally how you make beer, you put some yeast into the sugary liquid known as wort and the yeasts eat the sugar and make alcohol and carbonation, but what is different here is that there is oxygen involved.  The oxygen rich environment makes for breading yeast, not for brewing beer, brewing beer happens in an oxygen free environment (there is a lot more science involved in that (but I am not sure what it is (but I think it might be called anaerobic fermentation))), so over the course of some time it sits on a agitation table getting shaken around and the yeast starts growing faster.  After the 250ml of wort has grown enough yeast they then add that to another 500ml of wort and the yeast growth continues with more agitation.  Agitation pictured here:

And this cycle of adding more wort keeps repeating itself until the scientists have achieved about 50 liters of yeast.  And at every stage there is a little nourishment that happens.  The scientists add nutrients to help fortify the yeast and make it ready for "the cold, cruel world of anaerobic fermentation".  Here is Kelly adding a delicious looking supply of vitamins:

It is then that they hand the hungry yeast over to the cellar and there the folks grow it to an even lager quantity (around 80 hecteliters) which is enough to throw (or pitch) into a full batch of wort to make beer (look out for Let's go to the Cellar). 

That is the basic run down of the science involved. During Cody and I's talk we were joined by more biologists, Kelly, Gina, Ryan and Drew and the team of five explained it all in major depth but they lost me at "osmotic shock" and that is when I went glassy eyed.  Who knows how many terms and phrases the group threw at me that I didn't understand, the count was very high, but here is a quick list of the few that I think I can spell (but probably not): "polymerase chain reaction", "super oxide radicals", "suspended animation", "speciate", you get the picture.

But the one thing that blew me away in the micro lab was the sheer volume of fire involved.  I am just another dude that loves watching things get lit ablaze, but in the micro lab they use fire for everything, to sterilize, warm, cook, sing around, whatever.  Here is an example:

Not sure what is happening there, probably some sort of sanitation, but in the end it's awesome because they are blasting the lip of that scientific container with a fire gun.

As the morning progressed we discovered the answer to question/answer combo two: would a lab coat make me look smarter?  In this process they asked if I would like to become involved in the science at hand and they passed me that lab coat (for the more official look and smarter look detection) and also some sort of beaker (that sure is a funny name for a jar):

Bearing witness to my complete inability to perform science and noticing that the lab coat does not (in fact) make me look any smarter, the team of biologists shared in a good laugh at my expense.  I was a little hurt by the hardiness of their hooting and a single tear fell from my eye.  That was just enough for them to gather round and try to figure what might lift my sunken spirits.  They hit the nail right on the head:

More fire.

It was then that all of us (me and the five nerdy scientists) came the realization that what they do should be left to trained professionals, they then took away my lab coat (it didn't make me look smarter anyway), stood between me and any source of open flame, and firmly asked me to leave the lab, but before I did I caught one last (and lasting) image of the whole team, deep in the middle of science:

Drew, Kelly, Cody, Gina, and Ryan.

So in the end we all learned a few things today, that micro-biology is absolutely important in the brewing world, but trying to explain it to a writer is a hopeless (and thankless) task, and also that a lab coat just makes me look like I stole some scientist's work clothes.  I hope the tour through the micro lab was as awesome for you as it was for me, thanks for reading.


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