The Lager Diaries is back! Kate Steblenko, our resident beer scientist, has been feeling all the changes at Jack’s Abby very acutely. Since joining the team in February 2015, Kate has worked to continuously grow our quality control program and has recently been splitting time between the Morton Street brewery and the brand new 250 sq. ft. lab at the Clinton Street. Read on as Kate talks about what these changes have meant for her, the importance of QC in the brewing process, and her experiences with the craft beer community.
Where did you go to school and what did you go to school for?
KS: I went to school up at UVM and I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry with a minor in molecular genetics. So, basically, I went for science! I was studying chemistry originally but I got bored with it pretty quickly. I really wanted to play with microbes and infectious diseases and fun things like that, so I switched.
I assume you didn’t go directly into the beer industry.
KS: I originally wanted to pursue a PhD or possibly an MD… but in reality I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I went and got a job at UMass Medical School and I was doing tuberculosis research with, like, live active cultures and real tuberculosis- I had to get fingerprinted by the FBI and I was in a level 3 lab with full head-to-toe gowning. It was like, if you screwed up the police were coming for you, that kind of situation. Either that or you died. And eventually I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in a situation where if I mess up I die.’ On top of that, academia is a fickle beast and it wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted.
How did you go from being a tuberculosis researcher to a beer scientist? What prompted that transition?
KS: It was a really fortuitous road that I found myself on. Back in college I would daydream about career paths and would think, ‘it would be really cool if you could do beer science, fermentation science.’ I mean, I studied microbes, chemistry of microbiology, and it seemed like a real life application that I would enjoy and get to use my college education doing. But I didn’t think it was a real job, I thought it was something I had made up! I found myself working in that tuberculosis lab and I was miserable and one day my best friend sent me an email saying that they knew someone who worked at a brewery in Massachusetts that was hiring a lab tech. At this point I lived in Worcester and I thought, holy crap, this job exists, this job is available, this job is within commuting distance- and it came recommended by my best friend! It felt like every karma point was coming together to give me this job so I sent my resume the next day. I got a call about a week later, had a phone interview, came in for a real interview, and got the job.
How much did you know about the beer industry before you began? Was it a big culture shock?
KS: I had done a small stint as a promotional sales rep for Boulder Beer Company- doing free liquor store tastings and beer festivals- which really got me excited about the industry. Like, these people are happy and loving their lives and loving their jobs and this is a thing I could be a part of. Ya know, I don’t have to sit miserably at a desk all day- though I do end up sitting at a desk a fair bit. But the people here, everyone is friendly and happy and enjoying what they’re doing. So that’s how I realized this was a real option for me.
So what does a typical day look like for you?
KS: So over at Morton Street, where we’re still doing all of our beer production, there’re a number of things I do on a daily basis. The first thing I do is a forced fermentation. I take packaged yeast, more than would be necessary for normal fermentation, and I add beer from the previous day’s brew to it. The goal is to ferment it as quick as possible so you can figure out what the end product will look like so we can recognize it when it happens in the tank on a large scale. With numbers from that I can tell people, ‘hey, you need to pressurize this tank,’ at a specific time so it can carbonate to the correct levels- which is a really important bit of information to have. I also monitor yeast pitching. We use different amounts of yeast depending on how strong the beer starts out at and how much alcohol we’re going to produce- like a beer like Mass Rising [8% abv] uses more yeast than, say, Jabby Brau [4.5% abv]. So it’s my job to make sure that there’s enough yeast to produce the desired alcohol percentage and that the yeast is healthy. I also monitor microbiology across the board to make sure that the microbes from our sour barrels- which are fine to eat, it’s not a safety issue- don’t end up in our regular un-sour beers. Basically, we don’t want Hoponius sitting on the shelf and turning into a sour beer over time. I monitor packaging QC as well- fill heights on bottles, making sure the crowns are on tight enough. That’s mostly for consistency.
How about over here at Clinton Street? This is a brand new lab for you and you’ve gotten a lot of upgrades- what are all these machines for?
KS: All my shiny toys! So me and Tim, who is the quality manager here and my direct supervisor, he’s the one who’s really been spearheading the whole laboratory program and the one who got me on board- he wants to be able to get as many specs on our beer as we can. So over here I pretty much only work with packaged final product beer and test it for three different things right now- though we’re working on bringing more tests in. Right now we have an alcolyzer and a very high quality density meter that can calculate about 30 different calculations I think. You can figure out your starting gravity, your final gravity. You can do a calorie count, you can do alcohol percentage, you can do pretty much anything with this machine. So that’s fun, but also terrifying when you find out how many calories are in a single glass of some of the higher gravity beers. I also test for color-
What’s the purpose of testing for color? For consistency reasons?
KS: Consistency is probably the most general way you can put it, yeah. If anything goes wrong in the brew process you will typically see a change in your color. It could be something small- like if your beer oxidizes it typically gets a bit darker. So if you’re testing a fresh bottle off the line against one that’s been sitting for a month or two and the second one is a little darker- it’s a safe assumption that it’s oxidized a bit. There are a number of factors that go into these things, but that’s just one. It’s also just nice to know- another piece of information to have. I like knowing as much as I can about each of the beers because, why not?
The third test that I do here, which I think is really cool, is the BU- Bitterness Units- testing. I take a component of gasoline, what’s essentially a really powerful solvent, and I add it to beer with a little bit of acid. All the hop oils that end up in the beer as a result of the brew process get pulled into that gasoline layer- by the nature of science, you probably don’t want to get into the technical details. Then we take samples of those layers and run them on our spectrophotometer to test them against a sample with zero oils and it will tell us exactly how much bitterness is in there. It’s cool because all the samples look the same, they just look like water, but they all have really different information contained in them. And it’s all been pretty accurate so far so that’s great.
Is that your favorite part of lab work, seeing the results?
KS: Yes, oh my god, yes! On a good day, I’ll make it through maybe 10 beers on all three tests. So that’s 8 hours of sample prep, making sure the machines are running right, calibrating the machines. For the BU test I need to shake the samples and our shaker is still at Morton St cause it’s needed there so everyone here has seen me sitting in my lab just shaking sample tubes- I’ve made this makeshift Styrofoam tube holder so I can shake a bunch at once- just shaking them for 15 minutes. Science is definitely a mix of really fancy technology and old-school elbow grease- getting dirty, taking the time, and spending an hour on each single beer getting it all right.
I love being able to go to Jack and say, “hey we say that Lashes is 6.8% alcohol by volume and it read exactly 6.80%!” Telling your boss the best news you can, it’s just great. At Morton Street I am perpetually the bearer of bad news because on the process side, the only reason I have to talk to people about what they’re doing is if something went wrong. So that can be disheartening- when every time the brewer sees you it’s because you have to tell them to do more work. It’s nice to be on the good news side of things.
So clearly the lab program has grown while you’ve been here. What do you see for its future?
KS: One of the great things about Tim and Sarah Pott, my co-worker, is that we meet every week and we talk about some of the things we’d like to start doing. One of the things we want to do is a quantitative diacetyl test. Diacetyl is a natural product of fermentation that should be fully metabolized by the time the beer is ready- it produces this really buttery butterscotch flavor that we don’t want in our beers. Now we’re doing sensory tests for it, but having numbers to equate to those sensory results will be really helpful going forward. We’re also looking to start testing our foam and head retention- Sarah Pott is spearheading that. Tim always comes to me with ideas like, ‘can you make this happen,’ and the answers are usually ‘yes I can make that happen,’ ‘yes I can make that happen but it’s going to cost a lot of money,’ or ‘no, we have to send it out.’ Like, with $100,000 I could do whatever he wants! There’s equipment that we’re a really long way away from being able to afford- stuff that only Sam Adams or Universities have.
We’re not on the Sam Adams/University scale.
KS: Not yet. Though what’s cool about the community is that, if I need to, I can shoot the head of QC at Sam Adams an email with a question and they’ll give me a pretty great response. Everyone I’ve met in the beer QC world has been really friendly and positive and helpful. It’s all so open and inclusive. We all want to be making better beer.
Two beers in your fridge right now: Cadillac Mountain Stout and Kiwi Rising
Favorite non-alcoholic beverage: Pomegranate Polar Seltzer
Best music to blast at work: Lately it’s been Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. It’s kind of like retro bluegrass, soulful, with banjos.
What’s your favorite part of your day: I like the results- having the tickertape printer make an annoying noise and have the print out say “you did it!”
Sarah McGinley, 2015