Pressing ahead: One student’s adventures in brewing

Pressing ahead article

The science behind brewing beer has taken one enterprising scholar to New Zealand for a placement that led to the development of an award-winning concept.

Jack Ramsey, a chemical engineering student at Loughborough University, was recently awarded the Undergraduate Project Prize by the IChemE Food and Drink Special Interest Group for combining high pressure and ultrasound to speed up the processing time – and potentially improve the taste – of beer.

The Student Engineer caught up with Jack to talk about his course and placement.

Hello Jack. Congratulations on your award. Before we get going, can you tell us what you’re up to at the moment?

Hi, I’m just about to finish a five year master’s degree in chemical engineering at Loughborough University.

Did you undertake any placements during the course? If so, what did you do, for how long, and what key lessons from it will you take into your career?

After my second year at Loughborough I undertook a year-long placement as a process engineer working for Invista Performance Technologies in Teesside, a company who supply licences for chemical plants around the world. This was a great way to put the theory I had learned so far into practice in a real life design situation. I think the most important lesson I learned was the pragmatic approach to tasks needed in order to be able to deliver high quality work to the client on time. It was great to work in a multi-disciplined team and learn from some very experienced engineers. The placement definitely helped me to be able to prioritise tasks in my final year design project.

Similarly, how did the visiting studentship in Auckland come about? How long were you there for, who did you work for, how was it funded and what key skills did the experience give you?

As part of the masters course at Loughborough we have the opportunity to undertake a Professional Development Project (PDP) in the form of a research placement either at Loughborough, an overseas university or in industry. Ever since I became interested in craft beer a few years ago I’ve tried to relate my studies to brewing as much as possible. I came across Dr Filipa Silva’s work at the University of Auckland on non-thermal pasteurisation of beer. I asked if I could join her research team for a semester and she kindly agreed. I was pretty excited to live in New Zealand for six months because I’m a big fan of rugby and extreme sports.

The project was funded by the Morton Coutts grant awarded to the University of Auckland by Dominion Breweries. I didn’t have to pay any additional fees and Loughborough University have a grant that helps students setting off for their PDP with their travel expenses. The experience helped me to be able to digest large amounts of information and data to develop my own supported conclusions. It also gave me an appreciation for the amount of background reading and lab work that goes into getting a paper published. Living in an amazing country like New Zealand definitely broadened my horizons and has made me more adaptable to new situations and work environments.

Whilst you were there you found that the process of thermally pasteurising yeast detracted from the flavour of beer being produced. What inspired you to rectify this with high pressure and ultrasound?

It’s already well known in the brewing industry that thermally pasteurising beer can detract from the flavour, but if the brewery doesn’t pasteurise, the shelf life of the beer becomes much shorter. High pressure processing has been used to increase the shelf life of fruit juices and a few studies have suggested that this process could be used for beer. Ultrasound treatment alone cannot achieve the required inactivation of yeast needed to increase the beer’s shelf life. We decided to combine ultrasound with thermal treatment in order to see if it reduced the temperature and treatment time needed compared to thermal treatment alone. This could hopefully reduce the negative effect on the beers flavour.

Are there any indications that your process will be adopted commercially? If so, what are the key milestones to make this happen?

High pressure processing looks like the most promising alternative to thermal pasteurisation as studies have found that it has a minimal effect on the beer’s taste. More work like the study I completed in Auckland needs to be done to model the effect of pressure on the yeast in beer in order to firmly establish the optimal pressure and processing time needed. The best way to scale-up the process to be commercially viable also needs to be developed.

There may be some engineering students out there who’ve overlooked food and drink as a career option. Why should an engineering student look seriously at a career in this sector?

I chose to study chemical engineering because it tackled problems related to everyday life and you can’t get much more everyday than food and drink. There are lots of varied opportunities to work in this sector from large multinational corporations to small start-ups.

The editorial team on The Student Engineer has a ‘special interest’ in beer too. What should we look for to ensure we’ve bought a good quality pint?

I think it’s matter of personal preference, just drink what you enjoy. If I’m at a bar I’ll always look for something new or local that I haven’t tried before. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample before you decide on what to have, that way you know you’re going to enjoy your well-earned pint.

Likewise, it isn’t unusual for one or two of the editorial team to brew their own hooch at home. Any top tips for the home brewer?

My house at uni has an apple tree in the garden and we got a bumper crop last summer so my housemate and I built our own press and made cider. We were pretty pleased with how it turned out for a first attempt because you hear a few horror stories about students making themselves ill with homebrew. My advice would be not to brew a big batch until you’re confident with your process and you know it’ll turn out well.

Finally, where do you see yourself in 5 year’s time?

I’m moving to Canada this month and I’m currently looking for opportunities in the food and drink sector over there. In the long term maybe I’ll open my own brewery, but I’ve got a lot to learn before then!

Thanks Jack!

Submissions are now being accepted for the 2016 Undergraduate Project Prize; find out more via the IChemE website.

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