Science comes in many shapes and sizes. When we think of the typical BioSurplus customer, a research scientist at a university or a chemist starting a small drug discovery company come to mind.
We don’t usually think about beer.
Yet beer IS science. What is fermentation after all? And brewers need a variety of lab equipment to test the quality of their product and ensure consistency across batches.
BioSurplus has been lucky to play a role in the brewing of high-quality beer in San Diego, and counts a number of local breweries as clients. One of our favorites is Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits. I was recently treated to an entertaining and educational tour of their facility and quality control lab in Scripps Ranch, hosted by the brewery’s quality analyst, Lauren Zeidler.
Ballast Point co-founder Jack White first discovered a love of beer in college. Unable to find a wide variety of beers at local stores, he decided to brew his own. He developed a talent for brewing and opened Home Brew Mart in 1992 in order to make ingredients, equipment and information available to others who shared his passion.
In 1996, White teamed up with fellow home brewer Yuseff Cherney and launched Ballast Point in the back room of Home Brew Mart. The brewery eventually outgrew its location, and moved to the current Scripps Ranch facility in 2004. The company opened a restaurant and tasting room in Little Italy in September, and Lauren let me know that they will soon be opening a new, larger production facility as well.
We began our tour in the quality control lab, where Lauren introduced me to Nicholas Cain, director of quality, and lab assistant Zach Rae.
The Ballast Point team prides itself on crafting high-quality beer, and Lauren reminded me that she and the quality lab team’s primary purpose is to keep customers happy.
Lauren explained that beer starts with wort, a mixture of grain, water and hops. The wort is food for yeast. When yeast is added, it eats the sugars from the grain and excretes alcohol. Hops are added to provide flavor and bitterness. San Diego is known for its hoppy beer, and Ballast Point is one of the leaders in the local movement to produce unique and flavorful beers.
The quality control team at Ballast Point performs a number of daily duties in the lab. One of the most important is the measurement of gravities. Samples are taken from each batch of beer and density is measured using a hydrometer and stir plates. This is done to keep track of fermentation and make sure it is healthy.
Another important process is cell counting and viability testing (alive/dead cells). Lauren explained that new high-quality yeast is very expensive and is re-used in the brewing process; this is called serial re-pitching. Cell counts are taken and viability is tested each time the yeast is re-used in order to monitor cell health.
The team also measures dissolved oxygen in the beer throughout the brewing process. Oxygen is needed in the beginning but becomes a problem when beer is bottled, canned or kegged, and reduces shelf life.
Lauren pointed out that hoppy beer will remain fresh for a couple of months at room temperature, and around five months if kept cold. Less hoppy beers have a longer shelf life, especially high-alcohol dark beers, and canned beer will stay fresher longer than bottled beer.
The quality lab team also must measure critical parameters in each batch. They use an extremely sensitive density meter, as well as an instrument that measures alcohol by volume that is designed specifically for beer.
When asked about her favorite Ballast Point beer, Lauren said it was a difficult choice, but settled on the Victory at Sea Imperial Porter. Whole vanilla beans and coffee beans from local San Diego roaster Caffe Calabria are added to the beer, giving it a touch of sweetness.
She also reminded me to try Sculpin, Ballast Point’s signature India Pale Ale, which is hopped at five different stages of the brewing process. India Pale Ales are hoppier than standard Pale Ales.
Take a moment to browse through the photos below for an up-close view of the brewery, a tour of the Ballast Point quality lab, and the chance to learn about important steps in the Ballast Point brewing process including filtering and dry-hopping.