The Next Round of Beer Innovations

Originally published on

Much has been made of the creative, bold and entrepreneurial spirit that’s energized the beer industry, but the most seismic shifts in beer may come down to good, old-fashioned science. These technological innovations will undoubtedly shape what—and how—we drink in the future.

Waste Not
Striving to use fewer resources is one way that breweries can lower their environmental impact. But breweries are also pioneering creative methods for repurposing waste from their process, transforming what would have been trash into new, usable materials. At Boulder, Colorado’s Upslope Brewing Co., this requires the help of some aquatic, neon-green algae. The algae float in the excess rinse water that’s used in the brewery’s canning line and are grown in jugs that reside between the brewery’s 120-barrel fermenters. A pilot program partnership with Boom Algae takes carbon dioxide and other waste byproducts of fermentation and feeds them to the algae. The algae is harvested and sold to Living Ink Technologies, which uses it to make a 100-percent biodegradable green ink. “It sounded wacky at first,” says Upslope’s founder Matt Cutter. “But we’re hoping this is successful and leads Boom Algae to the next step, where eventually it becomes something that can handle more or all of the CO2 from our brewery.”

At Avery Brewing, also Boulder-based, brewery wastewater becomes feedstock for battery electrodes through a partnership with a Colorado University graduate student. Avery’s safety and compliance manager Taylor Gunter says the naturally derived lithium-ion battery electrodes thrive in the wastewater that’s full of chemicals from brewery cleaning as well as some wort that’s too weak to be fermented into beer. Instead of treating that water and returning it to a wastewater treatment facility, Avery hopes it could incubate renewable advanced battery components. These kinds of programs may be above the scale of some smaller breweries; to help even the tiniest brewhouse monitor its resource usage, Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing co-chairs the Brewers Association Sustainability Subcommittee that recently released a free, confidential energy and water use dashboard tool. As Katie Wallace, New Belgium’s assistant director of sustainability, puts it: “What gets measured, gets managed.”

Main Menu
A beer menu’s first purpose is straightforward: to tell a customer which beers the bar has available. But some forward-thinking bars and breweries are reimagining this humble document, introducing multifunctional menus that act as so much more than a draft list. Consider the beautifully designed menu at No Anchor, a months-old bar in Seattle: It plots draft beers on a chart from approachable to esoteric and from modern to traditional. If you’re looking for something trendy but not too challenging, you might land on Breakside’s Wanderlust IPA without having to buffet your server with questions. Or consider the ingenious menu at San Francisco’s Cellarmaker Brewing, where a gridded paper also acts as a placemat for tasting flights so you can read notes on each beer as you sip, without mistaking one glass for another. When it comes to a menu, knowledge is power.

Running Un-Wild
Andrew Durstewitz, co-founder of D9 Brewing Co., was a computer engineer long before he became a brewery owner, as was his partner and co-founder, Aaron Burton. And when the pair teamed up with John Ashcraft, a chiropractor, to open their Cornelius, North Carolina-based brewery in 2013, they decided to make use of their engineering mindsets. “We really wanted to take a more scientific approach with our sours,” Durstewitz says. The process they developed, which resulted in D9’s Systema Naturae series of sour ales, is unique among brewers. “Even if you were able to copy the ingredients and process exactly,” he says, “you wouldn’t be able to make this beer.”

Here’s why: For every beer in the series, Durstewitz and his partners scour the earth for fruits and flowers, chop them up, and soak them in wort to pull out microorganisms. They then separate each individual strain using small petri dishes and ferment small amounts of beer with the isolated bugs. “The colonies will sort of naturally separate on their own, but it can take hundreds of evolutions to get to the point that you have one, pure colony,” Durstewitz says. Each strain is tested for flavor and aroma properties, and the best of the best make it into the beer. It’s a novel approach to the fermentation of sour ales, which are commonly fermented with a mishmash of strains and blended for flavor, and it allows D9’s brewers to imbue their beers with flavors not often found in wild ales, such as potent floral notes. “When people started making sours, they didn’t exactly have the scientific knowledge, experience and tools we have today,” Durstewitz says. “We’re not just opening our beers up to the air and just letting them get hit with everything in the world; we want to locate the strains we like. I really think it’s the obvious next step.” And there’s validity to that statement: D9’s Systema Naturae ale, Scuppernong & Lily, won gold at the Great American Beer Festival in 2016.

Rare Breed
Yeast is one of the four crucial ingredients in beer, and yet mysteries remain about these powerful, single-celled microorganisms. In Dr. Kevin Verstrepen’s lab, part of Leuven University and the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium, more than a dozen scientists research efficiencies in yeast breeding with an eye toward how this could improve beer brewing.

“Obviously, making fermentations more efficient is quite cool, but what really makes me tick is producing yeasts that generate new aroma combinations and thus new beer styles,” says Verstrepen. “We are now getting to the point where we can routinely modify exactly the letters in the DNA code that we want to change, without making any other changes.” Verstrepen is thinking not only of creating more dynamic and interesting flavors in beer, but he’s also thinking of the planet. He hopes yeast breeding can create efficiencies in fermentation that make beer production more sustainable.

Bursting Beer’s Bubble
Brewing has remained relatively the same for centuries: You combine hot water with barley in one vessel, boil the sugary wort with hops in another, cool it down, add yeast and ferment. Minor advances have been made to improve the efficiency of each stage over the years, but industry-revolutionizing discoveries have been rare. Researchers from Italy’s Institute of Biometeorology and Institute for the Study of Nanostructured Materials may change that with an entirely new brewhouse and process they say dramatically lowers the amount of time and energy it takes to brew—all while producing beer that’s just as good as the stuff you’re used to.

The secret to their equipment is cavitation, the controlled creation and subsequent collapse of tiny bubbles of vapor, plasma or void within a liquid. It’s what happens when you push a liquid faster than it can react to the movement; the fast-moving tips of submarine and ship propellers, for instance, commonly cavitate the water around them. The process has extraordinary energy potential: The rapid popping of these bubbles can create extreme pressures and temperatures of more than 1,300 degrees. So how can it improve the brewing process? First, cavitation pulverizes malt to bits within minutes, which means brewers can add their grains to the mash whole, skipping the mill entirely. Plus, because the malt bits are so tiny, they’re easy to extract sugars from, making sparging—the process of sprinkling water over malt to remove any trapped sugars and starches—totally unnecessary. Cavitation, the researchers say, also reduces the temperature needed for saccharification by nearly 100 degrees (F) and completely removes the need to boil hops. All that translates into significant energy savings: The device, researcher Francesco Meneguzzo says, uses about 30 percent less energy than standard brewing equipment and costs 30 percent less to build. And the beer produced through this revolutionary process? “The outcome,” says researcher Mario Pagliaro, “is one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted across the world.”

Set in Stone
No, the Easter Bunny didn’t come early: Egg-shaped concrete fermentation tanks have recently begun popping up in breweries across the country. That’s because brewers are realizing the material—long beloved by winemakers because it imparts the round mouthfeel of wine fermented in oak without contributing any flavor—can do the same for their beers.

Concrete, like wood, is porous, allowing tiny amounts of oxygen to contact the beer and helping to move fermentation and aging along. The tanks’ ovoid shape also promotes the movement of beer during fermentation, since it doesn’t have any corners in which the liquid can settle and stagnate. Portland’s Hair of the Dog Brewing Co. and OEC Brewing in Oxford, Connecticut, have both used concrete to great effect, and John Erik Strom of Bent Water Brewing in Lynn, Massachusetts has high hopes for it. “I think that the concrete has a lot of calcium in it, so we expect some communication between the beer and the tank there,” Strom says. “To be honest, it’s new to me, but what I’m expecting is just a really smooth, clean feel. We’ll probably put some big, awesome stout in it to allow it to dance with the concrete, and hopefully we’ll pull out some pretty unique and interesting beer.”

Beer in America is a $250 billion-per-year business. Given its economic and cultural impacts, scholars are finally giving it its due and studying beer as an academic discipline. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History recently launched a three-year initiative to collect and preserve items related to brewing’s impact on this country’s agriculture, manufacturing, advertising industry and community life; the collection will be nested within the museum’s Food History project that currently contains historic beer advertisements; a bottle of Electrolight home brew made in the late 1990s by a General Motors engineer to celebrate the company’s first modern, mass-market electric car; a late 18th-century “colorimeter” instrument used to standardize and describe beers’ color and other curiosities.

Beer has also infiltrated the classroom: At the University of Southern Maine’s Quality Assurance/Quality Control and Research Laboratory, students use science to troubleshoot problems related to actual brewing processes. Through a partnership with the Maine Brewers’ Guild, that information goes back to the breweries to help them improve their beer.