Featured Writer: John Beaudoin
KC Communication & Media Matters
For many homebrewers, trial-and-error are just part of the beer-making process. Some batches finish just as you’d hoped while others might miss a flavor or fermentation mark. No problem, you drink ’em anyway! But when those with a penchant for formulas and garage-brewing graduate to full-fledged breweries and restaurants, hitting those marks are a much bigger deal.
Brewing beer is a science. Just ask Nick Vaughn of Martin City Brewing Company (MCBC) or Spencer Schaub of Smoke Brewing Company.
Vaughn is a chemical engineer by trade and has been with MCBC for seven years.
“Beer and science kind of go together. It’s a chemical process,” Vaughn noted. “There’s a science behind it and there are members of the art that know this, plus this, plus this, makes this. It’s like a chef making a masterpiece. Both an art and a science.”
MCBC has its brewing down to that science, certainly, with more than 8,000 barrels going out last year – six hundred of them to the Lee’s Summit location that opened in November of 2019.
Beer enthusiasts will recognize the MCBC classics like Hard Way IPA and Martin City Abbey, which are just two of the nearly 40 registered brews at one of the larger breweries in Kansas City. But even as new variations, fruited sours and witbiers are concocted in the MCBC labs, Vaughn says hitting the mark on taste, hoppiness and even alcohol level is an expectation.
“Sometimes you’re surprised, but after this long, you’re not really surprised, you just have pleasant accidents,” he said. “We know what we’re getting into and we know what we’re going to get. Even the mistakes are wonderfully drinkable.”
Spencer Schaub is a bit of a mad scientist himself, having worked at both Restless Spirits Distilling Company and Rock & Run Brewery in Liberty.
A homebrewer for five years, Schaub said he’s always loved the science of cooking and brewing.
“I was one of the guys building immersion circulators for suvee before it was popular,” he said “Honestly I just started brewing out of boredom and went down the rabbit hole pretty hard.”
Schaub brought his experience to Smoke Brewing Company in July 2020. “Brewing is a very precise imprecise science. It’s very forgiving until it’s not,” Schaub said. “As a homebrewer, it was trial and error. Now, being in the industry long enough, I can look at a spec sheet and know. But there’s still a certain level of ‘I’ve got to throw it out there and try it.”‘
Professional brewers have been experimenting with new variations on several styles, including India Pale Ales, for many years. West coast, sours, New England style, milkshakes and the list goes on. It’s all about balancing science, hops and either sticking with or throwing out the playbook.
“Pulleys and levers,” Schaub began, “I try to take most everything into consideration. If I am playing with hops, I may intentionally dry out a beer, drive the ph down so the hops can shine. If I pull one lever I have to ask myself how it is going to affect another lever.”
This is where the science rubber meets the beer road, it seems. Ph levels, hops, yeast and most importantly, cleanliness.
“Cleaning is probably the majority of our job,” he said. “It’s a low-ph product, so if something isn’t clean, there’s a space for that bacteria to hide. I want to make sure only my stuff is in there. No crazy flavors or sour beer. I can’t sanitize it unless it’s clean.”
“Yeast is finicky. It’s an organism and it’s alive so sometimes it does what it wants. I’m not making beer; I’m babysitting a micro-organism!”
Therein lies the scientific challenge of creating a beer that hits all the expectations of the brewer. “Sometimes, one specialty grain won’t get you there. You want a much more complex, cohesive flavor,” he said. “I obsess over every small nuance over it.”
Schaub has toyed with IPAs and helped perfect higher ABV beers, such as a Vietnamese Coffee Stout and an 11.8% Belgian Quad, which is a science of its own for brewers.
“When I’m formulating the recipe or I’m designing a new recipe, I give myself a half point variance. For example, if the goal is 7.0, I aim for anywhere between 7.0-7.5″ he said. ” In dryhopped beer, there are enzymes on hops that restart some fermentation which is known as hop creep.”
Even with the seemingly endless range of flavor profiles, Schaub said Smoke’s number one seller is still its piIsner style. At the end of the day of scientific brewing, Vaughn says, it’s all about the yeast. “We have to make sure our yeast is always happy,” he said. “Happy yeast. Happy brewers. And, ultimately, happy connoisseurs and consumers of craft beer.”