Brewing is among the oldest of all human endeavors, dating back at least 3,900 years to ancient Mesopotamia.
But hey, times change — and Oregon State University is changing with them, taking its fermentation science program into the 21st century with the installation of an automated brewing system.
While OSU does not brew beer for commercial sale, it is one of the nation’s leading training grounds for professional brewers, with about 80 students currently enrolled in fermentation science.
Purchased with a $1 million gift from Texas beer magnate Carlos Alvarez, the high-tech German-made brewing system was delivered in January and set up in Wiegand Hall, where the Food Science & Technology Department maintains its pilot brewing plant.
After weeks of test runs under the watchful eye of an engineer sent by manufacturer Esau & Hueber, the gleaming stainless-steel beauty started its first full production run on Thursday with the click of a computer mouse.
For the next several weeks, the computer-controlled brewing system will run through a series of about 200 pre-programmed steps to produce four kegs of maibock, a German-style seasonal beer with plenty of malt, a pale amber color and a heady 6.5 percent alcohol content.
If all goes according to plan, the beer should come out exactly the way it's supposed to without any additional human intervention.
"We develop a recipe, brew it a few times until it's tuned in, and after that it's ready to go," said Jeff Clawson, who manages the pilot brewery and created the maibock recipe through a process of trial and error.
"If you think of a flow chart, we've taken the (brewing) process and broken it into groups," he added.
Each stage of the process — mash conversion, lautering, fermentation and so on — is controlled by a computer as the beer moves from one vessel to another in the brew house. A single operator can monitor and direct the operation from a computer console using a Windows-based interface.
But the high level of automation doesn’t mean the operator is at the mercy of a computer program — the system also has a manual mode.
“I can make changes on the fly,” Clawson said. “If things aren’t going right, it’s easy to go in and make changes. We’re not locked into the recipe.”
The automated system is a far cry from OSU's old setup, a pub-scale system that requires manual operation and near-constant human monitoring — and can result in significant variations from one batch of beer to another.
Fermentation science professor Tom Shellhammer uses an automotive analogy to describe the difference between the two research breweries.
“This one is a 2017 Porsche-Audi,” he said, nodding toward the automated system. Turning to the old system on the other side of the room, he added, “That’s the old car we don’t mind letting the kids drive.”
Old, perhaps, but still serviceable. Fermentation science students still will use it to learn the fundamentals of brewing, and it’s finding some new applications such as making cheese and cold-brewed coffee.
“The old brewery will still be a training ground,” Clawson said. “It’s not going to the boneyard or someone’s garage.”
Once aspiring brewers master the basics, they’ll get a chance to work with the automated system as they get ready to graduate and enter the workforce.
“One of the cool thing for our students is this is what they’ll see when they go to work at a big brewery,” Shellhammer said. “Even smaller breweries are going to something like this now.”
That has a strong appeal for students like Alicia Collier, a senior from Portland who hopes to have a career in the industry. “I like seeing all the automation,” she said.
And while Collier may get a little nostalgic for the hands-on experience of making beer the old-fashioned way, she sees the university’s high-tech brew system as a significant upgrade for the fermentation science program.
“When you go to apply for a production brewing job, in the interview they’re going to ask you about what experience you have in automation,” Collier said.
“Now students in our department will get exposure to automation. They’ll be more properly equipped.”
And OSU’s brew house upgrade isn’t done yet. Shellhammer said the next step will be to replace the cellaring system, where newly brewed beer is filtered, carbonated and readied for packaging.
Funding sources are being identified to complete the work, along with industry partners willing to contribute in-kind support.
“The cost of the whole project, when we’re done, will probably be closer to $1.5 million,” Shellhammer said.