Some University of British Columbia science students are diving deeper into beer than most postsecondary students doing "research" in campus pubs.
For the 11 UBC students, most of whom are in chemical engineering, their interest is academic. They have been brewing beer in a closet at the chemical and biological engineering building at the university's main campus as part of a drive to develop a low-cost app to allow people to remotely monitor and control the brewing process.
The goal is for home brewers and small craft breweries to have cheap technology to produce the kinds of results that larger operations with the ability to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on tech can achieve. And with the ability to do it from a smartphone.
It's also about about finding a real-world use for theories learned in class. The students' undertaking requires them to put into practice both knowledge of chemical processes (for the brewing side), and physics and tech processes (to develop the app).
"I joined the team because I really liked craft beer and thought it was kind of a unique project to be able to brew your own beer," says project leader Josh Donaldson, a 21-year-old chemical engineering student.
"Since then, it has kind of become much more."
That includes the students reaching out to various B.C. brewery operations. Brent Mills, co-founder of Four Winds Brewing in Delta, B.C., called their efforts "interesting and important research to further the technology in brewing production." Tana Eggleston, safety manager for Central City Brewers and Distillers in Surrey, B.C., described the project as a "large undertaking" with many variables to consider. "But the models could be quite useful to the brewing industry when developed."
Earlier this month, they travelled to a meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in Minneapolis, Minn., to discuss their research. After their presentation, students from the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, came over to chat brewing. They were in formal military dress uniforms. "We were a little intimidated," Mr. Donaldson says. "They were quite nice, very professional."
A spokesman for the chemical-engineering institute, which has 45,000 members in more than 150 countries, was not surprised. "Beer brewing is a popular demonstration activity because (aside from the obvious enjoyment factors) it's an accessible example of chemical engineering in action that a mainstream audience can grasp," Gordon Ellis said in a statement.
"Chemical engineers can use the beer brewing process to describe a variety of chemical reactions and engineering processes."
Beer is made from a mix of barley and other grains, water, a flower called hops, and yeast. During fermentation, yeast in the brew converts the naturally occurring sugars in the grains into carbon dioxide and alcohol.
The process is a natural point of fascination for scientists: At UBC, for example, chemical and biological engineering professor John Frostad has been doing research into beer foam to understand its potential applications in manufacturing and engineering processes, such as in the energy sector.
Fraser Hof, a Canada Research Chair in Supramolecular and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Victoria, says he is aware of at least three other faculty in various post-secondary institutions who have done research work involving beer.
"Scientists love a challenge. Natural processes that involve many thousands of different molecules, many of which are unknown, are therefore really challenging and interesting," Prof. Hof says.
Although he has previously done research on brewing processes in association with Phillips Brewing and Malting Co., Prof. Hof says he is not a fermentation researcher.
"I am a cancer researcher, but the things that we have learned by studying fermentation and yeast cells actually fold directly back into the work we have been doing on cancer," he said in an interview.
"A living cell is a living cell and a lot of the basic lessons learned in one place will apply in the other place. I see it as a cross-fertilization of ideas."
Work on the UBC app began last in January when chemical-engineering students were looking for research projects to take to the American institute meeting.
Athanasios Kritharis, a chemical and biological engineering student present for the ah-ha moment, says various project possibilities were tossed around, including a water-purification system.
"And then someone mentioned, 'What about brewing?'" says Mr. Kritharis, 25. "We kind of looked into it. It was, 'Oh wow. This is kind of complicated.' The more we read about it, the more we said, 'Okay. This is perfectly applicable to chemical engineering.'"
Challenges to developing the app have included developing code and circuitry for the circuit board, which streams data onto the web.
The project team consists of students in chemical engineering, physics and such areas as materials engineering and mechanical engineering. They are Shams Elnawawi, Landon Jackson, Vittorio Sambatti, Matt Schultz, Nhi Nguyen, Shannon McInnes, Mitchell Ang, Alan Vilchis and Ricardo Rivera.
Team members were on hand earlier this month as The Globe and Mail visited the chemical engineering building to look at the apparatus, set up in a classroom. It included a fermenter, brewing kettle, a circulating bath to cool the beer during fermentation, and a circuit board.
There were also some of the bottles of beer that have been brewed as part of the exercise, which has cost about $1,000, supplied by university research funding.
There are liquor-law rules around this scientific material. The beer can only be consumed by the students in private residences. For safety reasons, it cannot be consumed in the classroom. Because the project revolves around a food product, the team has to make sure the working environment is clean and free of any chemicals. The beer cannot be sold. Despite the rules, chemical-engineering student Matthew Schultz said it's a fun exercise. "The product is useful in the real world. It's a great way of reinforcing what we learn," he said.
Team members have only drunk about four of the 24 bottles of beer they have produced for their research.
"Because it's beer, everyone is, 'Oh. You just want to make beer because you want free beer,' which actually isn't the case," Mr. Kritharis said.