Better Tasting Beer Thanks To Microscopy

Monday, September 24th, 2018

Scientists at the Institute for Brewing and Beverage Technology at the Technical University of Munich are working on how to perfect the enjoyment of beer. By utilising ZEISS microscopes and the latest brewing technology, they are bringing innovative research to a discipline with a long-standing tradition.


Christoph Neugrodda picks up his empty glass from the table, tilts it at a 45-degree angle and starts to pour. As he watches the foamy liquid fill the glass, he shakes his head and laughs. “These days, I pour water just like beer—my job has definitely rubbed off on me,” he says, placing the bottled water back on the table. Mistaking a water glass for a snifter is an occupational hazard for Christoph Neugrodda. He is a scientist at the Institute for Brewing and Beverage Technology, part of the Technical University of Munich. As head of the research brewery located on the hills of the former Weihenstephan monastery about 40 kilometers outside of Munich, he has spent the past six years perfecting beer foam.


Where Today Meets Yesterday

Driving up the steep roads to the brewery, you already suspect that you will not find traditional research labs and lecture halls behind the thick stone walls surrounding the institute. The theory and practice of brewing beer have long been part of the curriculum. Visitors can see this as they make their way through the different rooms at the Institute for Brewing and Beverage Technology. Here,   knowledge about beer and its production has been handed down from one generation of brewers to the next since 1865.

Christoph Neugrodda walks past the pennants and flags adorning the stairwells within the ancient walls. The numerous additions to the structure over the years have turned walking through this historic site into an adventure with many literal twists and turns. Neugrodda stops in the foyer outside the lecture hall.

“This is our taproom. Our department convenes here regularly for research meetings,” he says with a smile. Discussions about ground-breaking research are not what you would expect in a space like this. He rests his elbows on the polished wooden counter with four different taps. His eyes wander gleefully over to the foosball table in the corner and the various beer advertisements from past decades hanging on the walls. Yet a look at the beers listed on the board behind the bar immediately makes it clear that brewing is very much a science. Neugrodda’s enthusiasm for his work is palpable.


A Broad Field Of Research

“Brewing is the oldest biotechnology out there, and it requires a lot more know-how than the average beer drinker would suspect,” he says. “We’re working on an extremely complex product at our research brewery. Currently, more than 3,000 chemical compounds have been identified in beer, and more are still being discovered. The opportunities are immense.”

For his dissertation, Neugrodda is focusing on different types of beer foam. Foam gives beer its bubbly taste, whether as a creamy head on a stout like Guinness or a thicker layer on a traditional German pilsner. “Foam creates a natural diffusion barrier, keeping the beer fresh for longer. Moreover, each type of foam has its own aroma. However, you’ll only notice this once you take a sip. Not drinking the foam with the rest of your beer directly affects the flavour,” explains Neugrodda.


The Quest For The Perfect Taste

Researchers at the Institute for Brewing and Beverage Technology in Weihenstephan are working on a wide variety of projects related to beer. Magdalena Müller joined the institute in 2013 and is writing her dissertation on alcohol-free beers—a trendy subject with a lot of potential. By 2025, the leading breweries aim to generate around 20 percent of their revenue from low-alcohol beers. “Companies have kept raising the bar for alcohol-free beer over the past several years,” says Müller as she and Neugrodda walk across the Weihenstephan campus.

A little further down the hill, the modern research building that houses the six-meter-high dealcoholisation system is located directly across from the historic institution and monastery. “Alcohol and the high concentration of certain flavouring agents in normal beer can mask any unpleasant aromas. Since these flavours are missing in alcohol-free versions, top-quality ingredients are a must.”


Better Tasting Beer Thanks To Microscopy

The researchers work with high-tech instruments to assess the quality of the ingredients. “A brewer’s most important tool is a spindle to measure the sugar content and a microscope to assess the quality of the yeast,” says Neugrodda. The reason: the “German Beer Purity Law” or Reinheitsgebot only permits natural ingredients, and the quality of yeast can vary just like any other crop. “The freshness of the yeast directly affects the beer and the foam. If a brewer is having difficulties with the foam, then the yeast is usually to blame.”

Müller knows that quality problems with the yeast also affect different types of alcohol-free beer. “There are too many dead cells in low-quality yeast, which make the beer bitter. You really notice this with alcohol-free versions,” she explains. Equipped with a ZEISS Axioscope microscope and different contrast techniques, the researchers measure the portion of living and dead cells in a particular yeast. The application of a fluorescence dye causes the dead cells to appear blue under the microscope, while the living yeast cells look white, making it easy to distinguish between the two. The higher the percentage of dead cells, the lower the quality of yeast.


The Art Of Brewing

Brewers and brewing engineers consider the brewing process to be an art that employs different methods and recipes to balance out fluctuations in yeast quality. While Neugrodda and Müller walk back across the campus lawn to the historic building housing the institute, Neugrodda describes the moment when the ingredients and process technology are perfectly balanced to produce an outstanding beer.

“Ultimately, beer is far more than just a product. An incredible amount of effort and care go into making it over the course of the lengthy brewing process.” This requires months of work, starting with crushing the barley malt all the way through to the final filtration. “When someone says, ‘Wow, that’s a great beer!’ I feel as if someone just bought a piece of art I created.”


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