Quadruple awards for UCT brewers

22 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Members of the brewing team and academic staff include (from left) Prof Eric van Steen (HOD), Bronwyn White, Alex Opitz, Catherine Edwards, Brian Willis, Robert Huddy and Prof Sue Harrison (director of CeBER).
Members of the brewing team and academic staff include (from left) Prof Eric van Steen (HOD), Bronwyn White, Alex Opitz, Catherine Edwards, Brian Willis, Robert Huddy and Prof Sue Harrison (director of CeBER).

It certainly wasn't heartbreak for the UCT team from chemical engineering who blew the judges away with their four category winners. But Dunkel Breaking My Heart took top honours in the Castle Lager Best Bru Award, with the judges impressed by its “simple style with a clean lager flavour and balance of hops”.

The team's beery fare also won the Carling Black Label Best Lager, the Redds Best Cider and the Castle Milk Stout Best Winter Warmer categories.

Their competitors included the universities of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Witwatersrand, Pretoria, North-West and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

With 18 years of experience between them, the team of Juarez Amaral Filho, Catherine Edwards, Robert Huddy (research officer), Alex Opitz and Bronwyn White are mostly old hands, says their co-brewer Brian Willis. Five are doctoral or postdoctoral students in chemical engineering.

Willis has been brewing since 2011 and has been part of the intervarsity competition preparations for the past six years. Their newest member, Amaral Filho, has been brewing for only a few months.

“Some members plan to finish their studies next year, so we do need to engage with new students so that the legacy is maintained and the knowledge and passion transferred,” said Willis.

He says that postgraduate studies in chemical engineering attracts students from a variety of backgrounds (chemical and mechanical engineering, microbiology, chemistry and applied mathematics), which is a good mix when it comes to running a microbrewery.

“Lots of the yeast work is dealt with by our microbiologists, giving our brews the best chance of coming out clean and refreshing.”

Sustainability at the heart of a good brew

The heart of the enterprise is the 50-litre microbrewery commissioned in 2006 as part of SAB's plans for the intervarsity competition. It resides in the experiential lab in chemical engineering.

“The equipment is a scaled-down version of the industrial process, offering tight control of variables such as temperature and mixing, and with a skilled team we can reproduce beers well,” said Willis.

Their prize money is, well, money for beer – the proceeds are spent on technical improvements to ensure that the system is safely in place for future brewers.

But it wasn't all froth and hops.

 In coming up with their winners, the brewers dealt with some serious sustainability issues, which is a strong theme in the Department of Chemical Engineering. All members of the brewing team are part of the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering and Research (CeBER), which is hosted by the department.

It's a paradigm shift within the processing methods across various industries throughout the globe, adds Willis. And the emphasis impressed the judges.

“Water, specifically, has been recognised as an invaluable and finite resource and processing practices are evolving to reduce unnecessary water consumption – and our microbrewery is no exception.”

The team is investigating ways to reduce water consumption “such that we can brew with good conscience”.

“With respect to grain management, we're cultivating a mini circular economy of sorts by negating our waste and we're exploring various management schemes that can be implemented and sustained.”

Their waste management strategies have been fully incorporated into their brewing process and the team is developing relationships with local breweries to dump their spent grains, which are then sold to farmers as animal feed. It's also donated to mushroom farmers as the substrate for growing delicious fungi. They're also looking at setting up a Bokashi bin (an eco-friendly composting system) to produce fertiliser, and eventually soil, once it has degraded.

“Brewing is one of the largest and best understood bioprocesses and it's exciting that postgrad students have the chance to engage with brewing and fermentation,” added Willis.

Serious science but fun galore

It's serious science, but also loads of fun. Naming their brews is a group effort involving much laughter and a well-developed sense of the quirky. Each brew has a story and bottling it is “fun and messy time”.

“It depends on the style. Some beers are more prone to foaming or gushing and if the bottle isn't capped quickly, beer ends up everywhere!” Willis noted.

Over the years, the team have developed many recipes and processes to ensure that new brewers will be able to continue producing high-quality beers.

“Placing as many control systems on our fermentation vessels and the brewery itself will mean that, with good recipes and processes, the beers will be reproducible. We'll use the attention gained from these intervarsity wins to attract new members to this successful group!”

To market, to market?

Are there plans to market their winning brews commercially, perhaps adding to the coffers of a cash-strapped university?

“We wish! But for now there are no such plans. UCT takes a strong stance against alcohol abuse and we've taken a similar stance. As such, lots of training as brewers goes towards appreciating and understanding the various styles of beers and the recipes and process development that go towards brewing them.

“Fortunately, with careful management of our winnings over the past few years, we can keep ourselves afloat.”

Story Helen Swingler. Photo Candice Mazzolini.

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