Life hack for microbrewers: how to avoid bitter beer

    (Ifanyi Bell/for WHYY)

    (Ifanyi Bell/for WHYY)

    It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the rise of the microbrew began, but one thing is for sure: across the country, from Portland to Philadelphia, brewing beer has become not only a popular hobby, but an art and a science that depends on precision timing and exacting measurements. People spend years perfecting their craft in search of unique flavors that beer drinkers will enjoy.

    One of the people behind the effort to pull the perfect pint isn’t a brewmaster, or a barkeeper, but a local scientist — Kristen Kahle, a researcher working with Invisible Sentinel, a Philadelphia-based biotech company that has developed a series of diagnostic tests that have huge implications for the beer industry, and the food industry as a whole.

    Last fall, we brought our cameras over to Invisible Sentinel’s West Philadelphia laboratory for a sit-down conversation with Kahle about how their product is helping brewers create efficiency and consistency in their brewing processes. We brought along a local network engineer, Ted Hannon, for a video version of our “So, What Do You Do?” series.

    Kahle hails from a family of chemists, joking that sometimes she and her sister used to believe that their father was guilty of “planting subliminal messages.”

    “What I was most interested in, growing up, were actually viruses. I always wanted to work on HIV and some of the deadly viruses,” said Kahle. 

    During her graduate work at Thomas Jefferson University, Kahle had the opportunity to do just that. Her Ph.D. thesis was centered on the kinetics of HIV-1 and viral resistance. From there, her pathway to Invisible Sentinel and the food industry started to come into focus after she switched from studying viruses to studying bacteria, with specific strains significantly impacting beer production. And that’s where Invisible Sentinel’s product, ‘Brew Pal‘ (Pediococcus and Lactobacillus) comes in.

    Essentially, Brew Pal is a tool that is able to very quickly detect some of the spoiling agents commonly found in beer. Being able to detect them quickly can mean the difference between a batch of bitter beer and the consistent flavor brewers are looking for.

    “Basically, the main bacteria that brewers want to look out for are pediococcus and lactobacillus,” explained Kahle.

    As a fan of sour beers himself, Hannon made the point that brewers may want to use Brew Pal to make sure that enough of the bacteria are present, rather than trying to avoid it.  Kahle agreed.

    “It’s a quantitative test. The intensity of the test-line is proportional to how many cells you have in your sample, so you can monitor it.”

    Before Brew Pal, the only reliable method of detecting spoilage organisms took days to detect, rather than hours with Brew Pal’s testing methods. Many of the brewers that use the device cite that waiting days could result in many batches of spoiled beer. 

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