- Associated Press - Saturday, June 11, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A laboratory in Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of chemical and life sciences engineering houses flasks of golden- and amber-colored liquids that might contain a microbial spark for the next unique Virginia craft beer.

It’s part of an experiment in growing unusual yeast strains, and just the latest of several projects undertaken by Stephen Fong, an associate professor of chemical and life-science engineering at VCU who is lending his expertise to the Richmond region’s fledgling craft beer industry.

Fong, often joined by his wife, microbial ecology professor Grace Lim-Fong of Randolph-Macon College, has worked with some of the Richmond area’s craft breweries to make their beverages better, while also educating students about the intricacies of engineering and microbiology through the lens of brewing.

In Fong’s lab, the flasks of liquid wort - essentially unfinished beer - grow strains of wild yeast collected from the Jamestown historic site .

The Fongs are working with Richmond beer maker Hardywood Park Craft Brewery to identify varieties of yeast that might be useful in creating a specialty beer to celebrate the 400th anniversary in 2019 of the first representative assembly in the New World, held at Jamestown.



The project is a long-term one because making beer from wild yeast - as opposed to the domesticated yeast that brewers typically use for fermentation - is a hit-or-miss experiment whose outcome remains uncertain right now.

“We know we have a yeast, and now we are trying to figure out if that yeast will produce ethanol,” Stephen Fong said recently in the VCU lab, as he and his wife tested wort samples for signs of fermentation.

Moments later, a blip appeared on a computer screen in the lab, indicating that at least one of the samples did indeed have some yeast microbes that were busy consuming sugars and making alcohol.

About a week later, in Hardywood’s on-site lab at its Richmond brewery, operations director Kate Lee pointed to a flask of yellowish liquid on her desk that had been delivered from VCU. She pronounced it a success so far, though far from being a finished product.

“We don’t know exactly what the success is, but we do have fermenting wort,” said Lee, a food scientist who specializes in fermentation. “That’s beer. It might not be good beer, but it’s beer.”

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An associate professor with a doctorate in bioengineering, Stephen Fong has been filling a niche need for laboratory services in the local craft beverage industry.

Besides lending a hand on the Jamestown beer project for Hardywood, he has offered his expertise and his lab to provide routine chemical testing and analysis for some of the up-and-coming breweries and cideries in the Richmond region.

That includes testing batch samples for alcohol by volume, or ABV, or for other chemicals that are either desirable or undesirable in particular beverages.

“It can be simple things such as analytical work, if a brewery wants to know how much of a chemical is in a batch, or what changed from batch to batch,” Fong said. “It helps them get some feedback so they can improve their processes.”

The idea of offering lab work to craft beverage makers arose after faculty in the VCU engineering school took some of their students to Hardywood to learn about the various sorts of engineering that are necessary for a commercial brewery.

“People may superficially think that brewing beer is not an intensive process,” Fong said. “But all of the steps are very engineered. We thought it would be an interesting thing for our students to see.”

Now, “we are looking to expand this (lab service) and have a centralized facility that all the breweries can utilize,” said Fong, who is currently able to provide services for just a handful of breweries, without charge. A longer-term goal is to acquire more lab equipment and offer more testing services, which would necessitate charging a fee.

The need for lab services exists because most small breweries or cideries can’t afford expensive lab equipment and must outsource their chemical and microbial testing. “They may have to send samples across the country to get it done,” Fong said. “It is expensive.”

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Garden Grove Brewery in Carytown has used the VCU lab to detect unwanted compounds in its beer such as diacetyl, which produces an artificial butter flavor that is generally considered undesirable for beer.

“For the longest time, sensory evaluation has been the most powerful tool for a brewer to use to determine anything positive or negative,” in a beverage, said Mike Brandt, brewmaster and co-founder of Garden Grove. “Sensory evaluation” means good old-fashioned tasting and smelling, but people have varying sensitivities to flavors and scents, he said.

Brandt jokes that he wishes he could hire a dog to taste-test his beers, given the canine capacity for chemical detection.

“Humans aren’t too shabby, either,” he said. “That is what is normal - for a group of people to sit around and take very careful notes about what they smell and taste.”

Fong’s VCU lab has been able to give the brewery more objective data on the chemical composition of its beers, Brandt said.

Courtney Mailey, owner of Blue Bee Cider in South Richmond, said she has used Fong’s lab “sporadically” over the last year to do some alcohol by volume and microbiology tests that required a quick turnaround.

Mailey said she typically tests her ciders using Virginia Tech’s oenology center, which provides services for wineries in Virginia. But that involves shipping samples to Blacksburg.

“It can sometimes take a little bit of time for those results to get turned around,” Mailey said. “One of the benefits of having Dr. Fong’s lab at VCU is they are quick with their turnaround. If I have a rush order on something, it is possible I can have an answer by the end of the work day, which is great.”

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Grace Lim-Fong, whose training is in microbial ecology, has gotten involved with local breweries by incorporating the science of brewing into her classes at Randolph-Macon College.

She has structured entire semesters around learning the principles of microbial ecology through the lens of how microbes transform a collection of mashed grains into a beloved beverage.

Beer, she said, “is a natural lab.”

Studying microbes “in vitro,” or in a pure culture outside their normal environment, “gives you information, but it is artificial,” she said.

In contrast, “studying microbes in situ, (in an active environment) really gives a better understanding of how microbial life works,” she said. And for college students, “there is a really attractive hook to studying beer as an academic subject,” she said, rather than just something that makes you drunk.

One of her microbiology students will intern at Hardywood next fall, and another will be collecting samples of wild yeast in Hanover County for Center of the Universe Brewing Co., which also is hoping to make its own wild yeast beer.

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Twice this year, the Fongs and staff members from Hardywood, including Lee, the brewery’s food scientist, have traveled to Jamestown on a hunt for wild yeast.

They placed collection containers of wort and took samples around the historic location to capture whatever yeast they could, especially near the archaeological site of the first brewery established by English colonists in the New World, around 1619.

The colonists relied on a low-alcohol-content beer for their daily beverage consumption, said David Givens, a senior archaeologist for the Jamestown Rediscovery project, which is hoping that Hardywood can make a beer to help promote the anniversary of democracy in the New World.

The colonists’ water supply was far less trustworthy than fermented beer, which is aseptic, said Eric McKay, the co-founder of Hardywood Brewery.

“Unlike the water, which could make you die from pathogens, beer was generally good enough to keep you alive,” he said. “On the other hand, it probably was not great-tasting stuff.”

There seems to be no way to know whether the yeast strains collected from Jamestown might be the same or similar to those in the colonists’ beer. “Trying to track the lineage of a micro-organism is pretty much impossible,” Stephen Fong said.

Givens wouldn’t rule out the possibility of finding a yeast that could re-create a historically accurate beer. However, he said, “We are not trying to re-create a 17th century recipe at this point.”

“I think the general conception is to use history and archaeology and science to create something we can use to celebrate the history of democracy in the new world,” Givens said. “Something the colonists may have found palatable, we might not. Their level of tolerance to a different tastes might not be what we have now. We want a beer that people will come back to.”

Whatever the outcome of the wild yeast experiment, McKay said Hardywood plans to brew beer that will be “an homage to America’s first beer.”

It may take some modern science and technology, and a lot of tinkering, to make it work.

“We are not expecting to go lay out a big container of wort and ferment beer from that, then put it in a keg and serve it,” Lee said. “The idea is that we are isolating different strains of yeast or bacteria that we can utilize in a controlled environment and in a developed recipe based on the flavor characteristic that we get out of it.”

Another option, she said, “is to just put it in a barrel and sit on it for a few years, and see what happens.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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