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At Ardent Craft Ales, VCU student helps with the microbiology of brewing

This semester, two biology courses at VCU are exploring the topics of yeast, fermentation and brewing.

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Senior biology major Ben Stone is interning this semester at Ardent Craft Ales, helping the brewers set up a small lab, establish quality control procedures to ensure consistency and other scientific tasks.

On a recent afternoon in a back room at Ardent Craft AlesVirginia Commonwealth University senior biology major Ben Stone peered through a microscope to examine a slide of yeast cells.

“I’m counting the number of yeast cells, comparing the number of live cells to the number of dead ones,” said Stone, 26, who is interning this semester at the brewery in Scott’s Addition.

Stone’s internship is part of a new collaboration between Ardent Craft Ales and VCU’s Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

As part of the partnership, biology faculty members Alaina Campbell and Fernando Tenjo, Ph.D., helped select Stone as the brewery’s intern. In that position, Stone will help the brewers set up a small lab and establish quality control procedures to ensure consistency, and he will perform a variety of other tasks such as verifying that their cleaning and sanitation procedure is working properly, creating a cell count protocol and starting a yeast viability program.

“The experience has been great,” Stone said. “Up to this point, my beer knowledge was limited to how to drink it. Learning how the brewing process has progressed from open vats fermenting to now, where every step is tightly controlled, is fascinating.”

The internship represents a valuable opportunity for Stone to apply his scientific knowledge and skills in a real-world setting.

“He already had a good background in microbiology and a lot of lab experience, but didn’t know much about brewing and was interested,” Campbell said. “He loves microbiology and I think the internship is a great way for him to apply his knowledge and skills to a different field than our students would typically be exposed to. I think this experience should make him more confident in his knowledge and skills but also hopefully show him that those skills can be used in a lot of different fields.”

Tom Sullivan, general manager and co-founder of Ardent Craft Ales, said Stone’s internship is helping them add scientific rigor to their brewing process.

“It’s fun to look in a microscope, but we don’t always know what we’re looking at,” he said. “We don’t have scientific backgrounds. And the laboratory work that we’re talking about implementing generally doesn’t require a huge amount of professional experience — it requires basic scientific training and mentorship.

“We saw [this internship] as a win all around,” he added. “Not only do we get the skills that we’re looking for, but students get access to a real-life scenario [of] how they might apply their discipline.”

The collaboration between Ardent and the Department of Biology grew out of a chance encounter at Union Market in Church Hill. Campbell was attending a tap takeover event run by Ardent and happened into a conversation with Sullivan.

VCU students check out samples of malt and hops during a presentation by Ardent Craft Ales.
VCU students check out samples of malt and hops during a presentation by Ardent Craft Ales.

“We actually started talking because we are both military brats,” she said. “Tom’s wife works at VCU as well so once he found out I was in the biology department and taught microbiology courses, we started talking about some of the stuff they were dealing with at the brewery. I saw an ‘in’ and basically was like, ‘Well, we’ve got students who could come in and help you guys figure some of this stuff out.’ That’s how the internship was born.”

Beyond the internship, however, the collaboration has also included a recent presentation by Sullivan and Kevin O'Leary, head brewer and Ardent co-founder, about the basics of brewing, as well as Ardent’s own brewing process. The brewers’ talk was delivered to a lab filled with students taking Campbell’s Applied Microbiology seminar and Tenjo’s course on Yeast and Fermentation.

“The brewing industry in Virginia is growing and based on what we teach here at VCU, we think this could be an opportunity for showing the students different options for using their degrees,” Tenjo said. “What the students learn here, they can use in real-world situations. They’re learning basic processes and basic techniques, and how to apply them.”

At the Ardent brewers’ talk, Sullivan and O’Leary passed around samples of malt and hops, and explained how beer’s four main ingredients — malted barley, hops, yeast and water — each play a role in influencing the final product’s style and flavors.

You can take those four ingredients and go in a lot of different directions, but it’s not terribly complicated.

“You can take those four ingredients and go in a lot of different directions, but it’s not terribly complicated,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and O’Leary gave a “quick shout out to the guys who really made this possible: Louis Pasteur and Emil Christian Hansen — the two guys basically invented the yeast management process in the space of about 15 years.”

Pasteur, Sullivan explained, proved definitively that yeast was responsible for metabolizing the sugars into CO2 and alcohol. Hansen, who worked with the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark, developed the first pure culture isolation techniques, which brewers still use today. In addition, his development of a long-term storage method is credited with the spread of lager brewing across the world.

“We’re still doing what these gentlemen recommended to this day, basically,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and O’Leary explained how different kinds of yeast result in different styles of beer.

“I know you guys have been learning about all kinds of yeast,” Sullivan said. “So what kind of yeast makes a really great beer? We’re talking about a saccharomyces strain, and that falls into two big categories: ale and lager.”

Ale yeast strains, they explained, are top fermenting, will tolerate warmer temperatures and have a very short conditioning phase — a big reason why many small craft breweries focus on ales, as they can produce the beer faster.

Lager yeast strains, on the other hand, are bottom fermenting, prefer cooler temperatures and have longer conditioning times.

“So within each of these two, there’s dozens of off-brands,” Sullivan said. “You guys have heard of all different kinds of ales — kolsch, hefeweizen, English bitters. They’re all ale yeast strains that have adapted over time to make a specific kind of beer. Lagers, probably less so, but there’s still been adaptations and mutations over the years that have given us some pretty specific types of lagers.”

Tom Sullivan, general manager and co-founder of Ardent Craft Ales, gave a presentation with Kevin O'Leary, head brewer and Ardent co-founder, to VCU students about the basics of brewing, as well as Ardent’s own brewing process.
Tom Sullivan, general manager and co-founder of Ardent Craft Ales, gave a presentation with Kevin O'Leary, head brewer and Ardent co-founder, to VCU students about the basics of brewing, as well as Ardent’s own brewing process.

Campbell’s applied microbiology course covers a wide range of topics, often including beer- and wine-making as part of its food microbiology section.

“Because of the partnership with Ardent, brewing has been more a part of the class [this semester] then typical,” Campbell said. “I was excited for the opportunity and hope the students enjoyed it. To prepare them for the presentation, we read a peer-reviewed paper the week before on the microbiology of malting and brewing.”

Moving forward, she said, she hopes that additional opportunities, including internships, arise in partnership with Richmond-area brewing companies.

“I’m director of advising for my department and experiential learning is probably my No. 1 focus in that role,” she said. “We have a lot of students in biology and we want to have as many of them as possible participate in some kind of experiential learning before they leave VCU. From a broader perspective, I like the idea of developing these partnerships not only for internship sites, but also to help add to classes — presentations, site visits, service-learning — and help me become a better instructor and adviser by knowing what is going on out there and what kind of opportunities exist.”

Tenjo’s class is scheduled to make several site visits this semester, including James River Cellars, a winery near Ashland, and Ardent Craft Ales. “These site visits will allow the students to learn more about the brewing and wine process and to see a real application of the concepts learned in class,” he said.

I am very interested in exploring brewing as a career.

As for Stone, his internship at Ardent has already opened his eyes to a new career possibility.

“I am very interested in exploring brewing as a career,” he said. “I don't know if I would have said that before this internship, but the environment is great. And the brew scene in Richmond is exploding.”

 

 

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