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Better beer through science

by Archives February 8, 2006

WINNIPEG (CUP) — A research team at the Grain Research Laboratory in Winnipeg hopes to make the processes of brewing and malting barley more reliable by understanding the role proteins play in the creation of beer foam.

Led by Marta Izydorczyk, program manager of barley research, the research deals with possibly the most important issue in the beer industry.

“Consumers have very strong opinions on beer foam,” according to Izydorczyk.

Different characteristics of foam include its colour, staying power and stickiness. While the amount of foam is influenced by the way the beer is packaged and handled, the foam’s qualities are largely a product of the type of proteins found in malt barley.

Izydorczyk explained that beer haze – the “undesirable” colour that beer takes on depending on the amount of protein – is also very important, particularly for customer preconceptions rather than taste.

She explained that the complexity of the brewing process has an impact, as do additives to the beer. Sixteen proteins have been identified that make it from the grain to the beer, and these are the proteins that will be subjected to further analysis, broken down into amino acid and DNA sequences to compare exactly what goes into the perfect brew.

“If we identify the proteins that affect these qualities, we can then go back to the grain, to the barley, and reverse engineer to make a better barley,” she said.

The results of the research have not yet been published, but Izydorczyk said that headway is being made towards the perfect beer foam.

Werner Ens, a physics professor at the University of Manitoba, supervised the mass spectrometry of the process. Mass spectrometry analyses the amount of light that shines through a substance, in this case barley proteins, to determine how much protein and which types are present. The technique, most often used for medical research, determines the amount of each protein and in turn helps to identify the DNA behind the proteins.

Rob McCaig is the managing director and director of brewing for the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre. He said that Canadian barley is unique for having high protein content as well as the enzymes needed to produce quality foam, so no additives or growth hormones are added to the barley.

He also noted that most “genetic modifications” to barley are done the old-fashioned way: by cross-breeding for desired characteristics, a process that can take up to 10 years.

As for the foam issue, McCaig said that he personally disagrees with the trend toward less foam, though he understands where it comes from.

“I think it’s a sign of quality. If there’s a nice one or two fingers worth of foam on the top, that’s a good quality beer,” he said.

“People see foam in the glass – if you’re in a bar or a pub or anything like that – they think they’re being cheated. I think that’s why some people worry about the foam, but it really is a sign of quality.”

Lighter beers with less alcohol, like many popular lagers, also tend to have less foam.Doug Saville, the president of Fort Garry Brewing and brewmaster at Winnipeg’s independent brewery said that this is part of the ongoing evolution of beer. “I think it’s becoming less desirable . . . it has never been one of my [preferences], it goes away after one or two sips anyway.”

“I don’t really know the scientific process behind it, but I know what works,” said Saville.

Maya Flat, a graduate student in behavioural neuroscience, likened good foam to quality beer.

“I like beer foam . . . not that I like the foam on a crappy beer. On a good beer, it’s part of the quality,” said Flat.

“In fact, I drink certain beers for the foam,” said fellow psychology graduate student Tyler Wereha. “Creamy foam: you can’t beat that!”

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