Brewer's Ed

Lab Basics on a Budget

Making better beer without breaking the bank

By Lance Shaner

Oct 11, 2022

Introduction

For many breweries, the lab is the last piece of the puzzle. Sometimes setting up a lab gets pushed aside due to a lack of dedicated lab space or even the time and staff to run tests and keep track of data. However, the cost of the equipment shouldn’t be a limiting factor for breweries looking to get started. 

I’ve compiled some tips for cost-effective equipment that can help you get your quality control practices up and running. Often if an item or reagent has a use outside of a lab environment, it’s probably a more cost-effective source and will do the job. There are a lot of things out there that have non-lab purposes that can be also used for the lab, and are sometimes the exact same product, but cost a fraction of the price.

Additionally, some tests you can perform offer a lot of bang for the buck. Forced fermentation, wort stability, micro plating, and sensory panels provide a lot of information for the amount of time and effort they require. Below are inexpensive versions of some of the tools needed for these tests.

Anaerobic Packs

Anaerobic packs are commercially available agents that remove oxygen to prepare an anaerobic chamber — anaerobic meaning there’s no oxygen in the environment, as opposed to aerobic, meaning open to the environment (i.e., there’s oxygen around). There are certain organisms that you test for that require anaerobic conditions in order to grow. To replicate an anaerobic environment to test for the presence of these sorts of organisms on a plated sample, you need to remove the oxygen from the closed chamber that the plate is put within.

Hot hands with agar

Be sure to use test strips to ensure your anaerobic pack is effective and your airtight environment is indeed airtight.

Scientific suppliers sell a packet that reacts with environmental oxygen — effectively sucking it out of the chamber, resulting in an anaerobic environment. Interestingly, the byproduct of the chemical reaction within these packs when exposed to oxygen is heat, and it turns out that those packets that you put inside your gloves when it’s really cold outside (HotHands®) are literally the same thing, just marketed for their heat properties rather than for their oxygen reaction. They are way cheaper than the scientific supply versions — often about a tenth of the price of the laboratory-specific version.

Another option is to use the CO2 that you already have in-house. Put a couple of valves on high-quality airtight containers, connect your CO2 line, and purge the container. In this case and in the case of using the heat packs (above), you should be sure to validate your methods, as well as purge quality and how airtight the container is, by using test strips within the containers.

Agar

Food grade agar

Food-grade agar works just as well as lab-specific agar at a fraction of the price.

Agar, the medium most labs use to grow cultures, is basically a seaweed byproduct. When you boil it and cool it, it creates a semi-solid that you can mix whatever nutrients you need in it to create your particular type of medium. The same agar can also be used in food, so you could buy food-grade agar to use in the lab. From a lab supplier, we found a wide range of pricing, commonly around $0.25/gram. You can buy it from a food service supplier for less than half of that, and it functions just as well for micro plating.

Autoclave

Autoclaves are used to fully sterilize using steam. They get up to around 250°F (121°C) — well above the temperature of boiling water. These elevated temperatures can kill bacterial spores that are resistant to boiling. They’re under pressure, which is what allows them to get up to those intensely high temperatures. About as cheap as you can get for a lab-type autoclave is around $15,000.

If you’re only sterilizing small amounts of media to pour your own plates in the lab, you can also use a pressure cooker. It does the same thing. Pressure cookers are intended to allow you to get to temperatures above boiling to sterilize things like canned food. There’s a pretty big range and cost to pressure cookers out there, but even a very nice, high-end pressure cooker is a fraction of what an autoclave costs.

A lot of pressure cookers have a gasket on them that can wear down over time. That gasket is what keeps the seal when you close it up. Some brands make pressure cookers that don’t have a gasket, so they tend to hold up for a lot longer.

Make sure to choose a pressure cooker that can reach temperatures high enough to ensure sterilization (the cheapest ones often don’t), has pressure and temperature gauges so that you can monitor the run, and has valves that allow you to purge the air inside prior to the run. Air has to be evacuated so that it doesn’t get in the way of hot steam condensing on the items inside, which is what allows the surfaces to reach sterilization temperatures. If you want to verify that you’re actually getting sterilization, there are autoclave spore testing kits that you can buy.

Incubator

Incubator1

Taylor’s original homemade incubator

If you have a small lab and you need something that’s meant to hold a steady temperature to allow for faster growth of bacteria, say 85 – 97°F (29 – 36°C), you’ll need a sterile media incubator. Laboratory incubators are typically a minimum of $2,000 and get much more expensive as they get larger. You can build one.

Incubator tub

An insulated plastic container can serve as a basic incubator, when done correctly

When we were first starting out, Taylor, our maintenance specialist, builder, fixer, and doer of all things that need to get done, built us all sorts of interesting things, like this incubator. We don’t really use it for this purpose anymore, but when we were growing our Lactobacillus in bottles, we needed a fair amount of incubator space, so he built a plywood incubator that we lined with reflective packaging material. He put a terrarium light bulb in it and an external thermostat so once it reached, say, 95°F (35°C), the bulb would turn off. It did all the things an incubator would do, but with an external thermostat and a plywood case. All the materials that went into building this thing were something like $200, plus Taylor’s time.

You could also do the same thing in a large plastic storage container with insulation and an external thermostat. All you really need is a vessel that you can heat up and control the temperature and you’ve got yourself an incubator.

Whirl-Pak®

Whirl-Paks are actually meant for laboratory use, but they’re inexpensive so there’s no reason not to use them. Whirl-paks are clear, sterile, sealable bags that take the place of an autoclaved flask and are for testing your overall sanitation at a few points in the process. When you’re sending clear wort from your brew house to your fermentation vessel, you can pull off a sample into the whirl-pak, spin it around, seal it up, and then incubate it. If you start to see it getting cloudy or if it starts to inflate, then you know you have some kind of growth in there. That growth came when you hadn’t inoculated yet, so by using Whirl-Paks to perform a wort stability test, you can spot the problem areas along the way — for example, your lines or heat exchanger.

Stir plates

Lots of people put up plans for DIY stir plates, but there are also people that have built them in that manner and then sell them online. Both of those options are less expensive than buying a stir plate from a scientific supplier, which would likely be over $100. All they do is spin a magnet — they don’t need to be fancy or complicated. Our molecular biologist Allison once built the one pictured above using a computer fan inside of a fancy cigar box as a base. Might as well make it look good, right?

Allison stir plate in action

Allison’s cigar box stir plate in action

Once you have a stir plate, you can use it for forced fermentation testing. Take a sample of your wort and inoculate it with a lot of yeast, then put it on the stir plate. Thanks to the spinning and the exposure to oxygen, the yeast will grow faster than it does in your fermentor and will give you an idea of where your batch will stop when it’s done fermenting. This is a good quality control step to make sure that you got the full conversion you expected during your mash and get a good idea of how your yeast will perform in the tank.

Sensory training

One of the most important instruments available to brewers isn’t equipment at all — it’s your staff. There are companies that sell kits with all sorts of compounds you can dissolve in water or beer to train people for detecting off flavors, but those can cost upwards of $150 for just a few people to use them.

However, many of the off flavors you’d expect to train on for beer sensory can also be found out in the world. Acetic acid is just vinegar. You can buy distilled white vinegar and dose a beer with it to train people on that aroma. To train on lightstruck beer, you can set a glass of beer in the sun for a few minutes. Imitation butter is available at the grocery store, typically where you’d find popcorn, which you can use to spike a beer for diacetyl training. Lab instruments can help find issues at certain points throughout the brewing process, but having well-trained staff will go a long way and help get everyone involved in the quality process.

It’s also incredibly helpful to train your staff on what’s good about your beer. When they know what to expect from a given brand, they can help spot inconsistencies from batch to batch and know what to look for when they see your beer out in the market. If you brew a beer that’s known for its especially intense citrusy hop aroma, focus in on those flavors by giving your team a rundown of the different parts of a grapefruit, or making a hop tea using the hops in that recipe.

Another useful tool is keeping a library of your brands. By hanging on to a few samples from each batch of beer you package, you have the ability to track how your beer is changing over time. This is a valuable, data-driven method of determining shelf life and understanding how the flavors in that beer shift as they age. In case of a consumer concern down the line, you’ll be able to reference the batch and have a sample to micro test rather than relying on anecdotal data.

Conclusion

Bolstering your quality processes can seem expensive and intimidating, but it’s worth noting that anything you’re doing beyond doing nothing will help improve your brewing. Hopefully these suggestions will help get you started and dial in your processes, and ultimately, make great beer. Let us know what other methods you’ve got in house to keep your brewing consistent and delicious.

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