Just last week, we attended the 2017 Master Brewers Association of Americas conference in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a very dynamic community geared towards advocating innovative technologies for improving the brew and malt house production processes. There were over 600 attendees from various breweries and scientific organizations across the globe.
So, you’re probably wondering exactly how Chai became involved in this conference. Believe it or not, we were not there just for the beer!
We’re actually working with a company in Germany called Pika Weihenstephan. Pika focuses on improving international analysis methods in brewing microbiology. Their test kits are based on real-time PCR and detects for product spoilers in the realm of bacteria, yeasts, and mold. Spoiler organisms can be found just about anywhere if you’re brewing beer, from drain pipes to the nooks and crevices of brewing equipment. While beer brewing involves microbial activity at every stage, some of these activities are not desirable as they threaten the final quality of the beer.
Pediococcus and Lactobacillus are two types of bacteria that can spoil beer by turning it sour. The percentage of acids, predominantly lactic and acetic, in beer determines its sourness. While this sourness may be characteristic in certain beers, such as the German Berliner Weisse and many Belgian beer styles, it can wreak havoc in other beers. With that in mind, it is crucial that good quality control processes are implemented in breweries.
For many years, the standard method for identifying beer spoiler organisms has been a system called plating. This involves taking a small beer sample and placing it onto an agar plate that contains bacteria media (aka bacteria food). Once the plate is streaked with the beer sample, it is sealed and incubated in open air and in specialized anaerobic chambers that are conducive to bacterial growth. Different bacteria colonies may grow on the plate. Depending on the colony morphology and size, brewers will then be able to confirm whether a beer batch is contaminated.
However, there are a couple downsides to all this. First, it takes a good chunk of time for result confirmation – from days to weeks – because bacteria grow according to their own schedule. And we all know, time is money. Any holdup will delay the production line and this could result in losses over thousands of dollars. Second, these cultures are growing all sorts of bacteria, not just Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. This means a dedicated brewer must be trained to identify all the different colonies based on their shape and size. It's a tedious job and very much prone to error. Finally, culture methods tend to suffer from a lack of sensitivity and specificity.
So to expedite the turnaround time and to improve sensitivity and specificity, real-time PCR is a better alternative. The Open qPCR can produce meaningful data in less than 2 hours. With the Pika test kits integrated into the Chai software, we’re providing an all-in-one solution to breweries out there who want to utilize real-time PCR for identifying beer spoilers. What’s neat about this system is that there is no need to manually interpret results because you simply get a positive or negative answer with low, medium, or high concentrations of the spoiler organism.
The brewers, many of them coming from non-scientific backgrounds, learned quite a bit about PCR and its potential. They were surprised at the low cost of the device and its ability to interpret results rapidly without much ado. As for ourselves, we enjoyed a couple IPAs while becoming more familiar with the brewing process.