Beer research is hopping at Dal

- June 15, 2011

Professor Alex Speers hoists a beaker of brew. (Danny Abriel Photo)
Professor Alex Speers hoists a beaker of brew. (Danny Abriel Photo)

Light beer or full-flavored? Fresh hops or dry? Lager or ale? Whatever your beer of choice, beer undergoes a lot research before the glass touches your lips, and one of the few Canadian scientists to pursue such research is Dalhousie professor Alex Speers.

With a PhD from the University of British Columbia in brewing science, Dr. Speers is only the second person in Canada to be recognized as a Fellow by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling.

His first job in brewing was as a manual labourer on the bottle line of Columbia Breweries in B.C. Now, he’s a professor in the Food Science Program, part of the Department of Process Engineering and Applied Science in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Engineering. He describes food science as a discipline that employs every science from chemistry to calculus in order to “efficiently produce safe food.”  

Consistency and creativity

Dr. Speers, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Saskatchewan and the Canadian Grain Commission, was the first to prove the connection between a brewing defect and a fungus that infects barley in the field. Brewers have been troubled by yeast clumping together too early in the fermentation process. This phenomenon, known as Premature Yeast Flocculation (PYF), results in high sugar levels in the brew, and occurs when barley that has been infected with fungus is malted and used to make beer.

PYF can be a “particular challenge” for major commercial brewers who are interested in consistency. “Every harvest produces barley that malts and brews differently,” he explains, but “people still want their favourite beer to have the same taste.”

On a tour of the food science labs on Sexton campus, Dr. Speers shows off the Zeta-metre which has been used to measure the surface charge of yeast cells: a factor correlated with PYF. Next, Dr. Speers presents a beaker of malt—barley that has been allowed to partially germinate before being dried. The small grains may not be as impressive as the Zeta-metre, but they are the basis of all beer, and here they will be processed into “wort” and then fermented in test tubes.

The ‘test tube’ beer is part of a current project that involves Dr. Speers and five graduate students. The project is funded by two grants—one from the Government of Saskatchewan and one from NSERC—and will focus on three main topics: the study of fermentation in different varieties of barley; the comparison of enzyme levels in common varieties of barley; and the effect of fungal infection on barley during malting, brewing and fermenting.

Hopefully the project will contribute to solutions such as developing a fungus-resistant strain of barley. The development of such a crop would be beneficial to Canada’s economy where, as a result of recent worldwide growth in beer consumption, especially in China, $14 billion was earned from Canadian barley sales in 2005.

In the future, Dr. Speers hopes to investigate the causes of “cardboard flavour” in beer, which is thought to be the main problem behind beer going stale.

Cheers to beer science

Everyone should enjoy their work, and Dr. Speers certainly loves beer. Various bottles and cans, many unopened, adorn his office shelves, representing the different companies he has worked for. He even has the first bottle of Ryder (mentioned in Douglas Coupland’s book and film Souvenir of Canada) that ever came off the conveyor belt.

With the recent popularity of smaller craft brewers, Dr. Speers says beer production in Canada is fermenting nicely. He proposes a toast to the “amazing creativity nowadays” and the development of new brands in Canada.


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