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Science Cafe Concord ponders the science of brewing (no free samples, sorry)

  • Science Cafe Concord logo Courtesy photo—


Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Biotechnology is trendy these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s exotic. I, for example, had a delicious bottle of biotechnology with dinner last night.

I refer, of course, to beer, which is humanity’s oldest biotech industry, by a long shot. For at least 5,000 years, judging from recently discovered pottery in the central plains of China, humans have been manipulating the living organism known as yeast, transforming grains and water into the beverage whose existence is often cited as evidence that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

Even today, figuring out ways to improve and best use your yeast is the heart of beer-making. Specialty yeast is so important to breweries that it’s guarded with rabid dogs and chainsaw-equipped drones.

Actually, that’s not true. Probably. But it might be – and tonight is your chance to find out.

Science Cafe Concord will hold its monthly question-and-answer session tonight at The Draft Sports Bar, and the topic is the science of brewing and beer. We’ve got panelists whose knowledge runs the gamut from home brewers to commercial craft brewers to Otto Kuhn, who is brewmaster at the Anheuser-Busch in Merrimack.

“My job is to keep the yeast happy. That’s what I do as a brewmaster,” said Kuhn, who has been in the business some 40 years.

The huge Anheuser-Busch brewery halfway between Manchester and Nashua is a class by itself in New Hampshire, producing some 3 million barrels a year among 14 brands, including seasonal.

The company’s yeast goes back to 1852, when Adolphus Busch started what became Anheuser-Busch by taking advantage of newfangled refrigeration technology to create the first national lager brewery giant.

“Ale is a little easier because of the way ale yeast ferments,” Kuhn said. Ales are happy at 76 degrees but lager yeast has to be 57 degrees to do its fermentation magic.

“We are still using the same strain of yeast,” Kuhn said. “We have a yeast plant in St. Louis that maintains the strain of yeast, propagates it – every month we get a cake. . . . You pitch yeast into wort, and it reproduces.”

I had mental images of workers standing atop a Clydesdale to heave something that looks like a wedding cake into a vat, but the “cake” is actually in liquid form.

Despite the huge difference in scale, Kuhn says there’s not really a great difference between what Anheuser-Busch does and what the smallest nanobrewer does.

“For somebody walking off the street to try to make Budweiser, it would not be possible,” he admitted. “But we make no distinction between micro and macro.”

Once a year, he said, the Merrimack brewery throws open its doors to other brewers to swap tips and advice, and probably a bit of their wares, as well.

If you want tips or have basic questions – like, what is yeast, anyway? – then show up tonight by 6 at The Draft, 67 S. Main St. As always, the event will be driven by your questions. And show up early if you want a seat; these events get really crowded.

To anticipate one question: No, we’re not giving away free samples.

Science Cafe takes a summer break, so we won’t be back until September. All the more reason to be there tonight. Check out ScienceCafeNH.org for more details.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)