High hops for novice brewers

5 October 2017
Students win Rare Brews beer-making competition

PhD student and rookie brewer Nathan Danckert rallied together a group of postgraduate agriculture students to take on the ultimate challenge of brewing beer in the name of literature.

Danckert and his team entered a competition run by University’s Fisher Library in celebration of their Rare Books and Special Collections section. The book on exhibition, Rare Brews: from cottage to industry showcased over 16 different recipes used to make beer throughout the ages - dating way back to the 16th century.

The Library challenged students, staff and alumni of the University to create their own brew using one of the recipes cited in their collection. On Wednesday 4 October, the official Awards Night was hosted at Staves Brewery. The breweries owner and licensee Steve Drissell acted as official judge of the competition, awarding Nathan Danckert’s team first prize for their Honey Ale.

Each beer was judged on aroma, flavour, colour and technical ability.

“Our group chose to brew the Honey Ale because most people in the group had at some stage tried it before.” He says.

Danckert commented on what he thought his honey ale might compare with on the market.  

“Matilda Bay brewery - ‘Beez kneez’ is the one that comes to my mind, something nice to drink which isn’t too strong. Ginger beer is a close second.”

“I wouldn't say our ale is better than the commercial brands, however it’s certainly cheaper and was a great experience to brew. If we could repeat this quality of ale, I’d certainly prefer it over any of the commercial brands available.” He explains.

The team was surprised at how easy the process was for beginners.

“Brewing appears to be a relatively straight forward process, at first. But like most things that seem simple, there plenty of ways to make easy mistakes. The most difficult part is keeping things sterile in an environment which simply isn’t.”

“In the end, we made two separate batches."

“After running through the entire process once, our efficiency was much better. It took half the time. The second attempt - the attempt we submitted - was much better. The entire process became simpler, we knew what to expect and with some experience we limited our mistakes. In turn, our ale had more body and flavour to enjoy.”

Nathan decided to try his hand at brewing as a bit of a hobby alongside his PhD research of bacteria in aquaculture.  

“Everyone involved in our brewing process comes from very diverse areas of research within agriculture, there are a mix of micro/molecular biologists, big data/modeling experts, a hydrologist - a bit of everything really. “He said.

“It’s very easy to become obsessed in your own research and forget about the community of people around you, and all of the amazing work that is being done here. This was an opportunity to have a break from research and bring together people who otherwise wouldn’t be involved with one another.”

“The competition provided a unique opportunity to use our facilities equipment and promote the Institute of Agriculture. Hopefully by displaying the equipment and facilities available at ATP, it will inspire a few eager students around campus.”

So, what facilities are available at the University of Sydney’s Food and Agriculture base at Australian Technology Park? Degree Coordinator Kim-Yen Phan-Thien explains.

“We have a newly renovated food science laboratory that was completed in early 2017. Within the lab there’s pilot scale brewing apparatus and fermenters. The fermenters can even be programmed remotely.”

"The equipment is user friendly and can brew large quantities. There are also a number of fridges to help control the process.” Nathan adds.

There’s plenty of opportunities for students interested in brewing to gain the foundational knowledge and practical experience required at the University.

“We cover brewing and fermentation as a topic in a subject called Food Processing and Value-Adding. This includes a practical class where students make an ale and a lager. There are also several factory visits. This year these included visits to Young Henry’s and Rocks Brewing Co.” Kim states.

“Food and Agribusiness students also do an industry internship in third-year. This may include an opportunity to work at a brewery, as other students have done before. Likewise, we have embedded an Honours year (a compulsory fourth-year where students do a major research project). Students who are keen can develop a brewing/fermentation-related project.”

The Rare Brews competition has definitely highlighted that brewing has come a long way since it first originated.

Rhys Raymond-Jones a fourth-year Food and Agribusiness student who undertook an internship at the Rocks Brewery Co. explains how.

“Beer probably tasted horrible when it was first made all those years ago. It would have been warm with no hops, and there would have been limited spoilage control.” He says.

“Modern beer was made possible with industrialization and refrigeration. People typically brewed golden lager, which had consistency.”

“In the last decade, the beer market has changed quite dramatically. People realised beer didn’t have to just be a typical lager. Small-scale breweries started to get a competitive edge with crafty beers warranting a higher price tag, which created real competition against macro breweries.” 

True to the time, brewers were limited to arbitrary methods of measurement back in the day.

“I had a look at the 'strong beer' recipe from the library’s Rare Brews book. I noticed that they suggested to wait until the water is cool enough to see yourself in the reflection, instead of using an actual thermometer.”

“The recipe also didn’t specify what kind of malt or hops should be used, so one can only assume whichever variety was grown in that region and that time was the one intended for the recipe.” Rhys explains. 

There’s obviously a lot less guesswork involved in modern brewing, but like anything, with improvements to technology and increased information, the industry is constantly evolving. That’s why the University of Sydney is expanding it's resources in this area.

“If you're interested in brewing, learn it! Take up a Sunday hobby, make a few batches at home, get crafty, make something that would be hard to buy, experiment, learn the processes and what they mean, refine your recipe's and methods. If you're still loving it, take it to the next level and perhaps do an academic brewing course and aim for an internship like what I did.” Says Rhys.

As winners of the competition Nathan and his team will receive several brewery tours, merchandise and vouchers to brewing shops around Sydney.

The Fisher Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections unit will continue to run their exhibition of Rare Brews: from cottage to industry until 28 February, 2018. Visit Fisher Library, Level 1 today to enjoy.