Alberta company looks at the science of award-winning beer

Back in the spring, craft brews in Alberta went head-to-head at the 2020 Alberta Beer Awards — one company took samples for a deeper look into makes an award-winning brew.

Calgary-based Raft Beer Labs ran tests on a selection of competition entries in Alberta Beer Awards

Calgary-based Raft Beer Labs tested a selection of the competition entries in the 2020 Alberta Beer Awards.   (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

What makes for a good beer can be a subjective question, but one Alberta company is taking a scientific approach to the topic. 

Back in the spring, craft brews in Alberta went head-to-head at the 2020 Alberta Beer Awards. The winners for the awards, now in their third year, were announced in early April.

But one company took a deeper look at what makes an award-winning brew.

Calgary-based Raft Beer Labs ran some tests on a selection of the competition entries. 

CBC Edmonton's Radio Active  beer columnist Jason Foster was one of two judges overseeing the judging process at the 2020 Alberta Beer Awards. He said this was the first time the awards had additional analysis tests.

"At the same time we were judging the competition, they were taking some tests, doing some analytical tests on a portion of the competition entries," said Foster.

It's everything you wanted to know, and maybe didn't want to know about Alberta's craft beer. We go over the results of some scientific analysis of some brews with our Beer Guy Jason Foster 9:39

In total, 31 beer from 18 different breweries were tested for the analysis, a small selection from the more than 400 beers entered in the competition. The company states that the goal of sharing the analysis was to help breweries.

"We conducted laboratory analysis of select entries to the Alberta Beer Awards — not to help the judging, but to understand factors underpinning the best beers, and where others might tweak their approach," reads part of the summary for the analysis by Euan Thomson and Peter Rynsburger.

Beer analysis

The Raft Beer Labs analysis, published on its website, showed a few trends among medal-winning beers.

Fresher beer was more likely to win an award. Medal winners were more likely to have a dry-finish than non-winners. Award-winning beers also tended to be clearer, with less turbidity than non-winners. Medal winners were also found to have lower free amino nitrogen levels and tended to be slightly higher in alcohol content than their target.

The analysis also showed that both winners and non-winners were less bitter — measured in IBUs, or International Bittering Units — than the listed level, and both winners and non-winners had some microbial contamination, from wild yeasts or bacteria.

Foster said the results weren't completely surprising. 

"I think that judges have good enough palettes that we're going to be able to detect a fresher versus less-fresh beer," said Foster. "There's just subtleties that you can pick up. Hops, hop aromas and flavours kind of dissipate and that kind of thing.

"So I totally get that we would see that difference and judge a fresher beer better."

However, Foster said that some parts of the analysis, such as the IBU level tests, are "more theoretical than real."

"That has more of an impact on the lab and I get why it matters to breweries in terms of being accurate but it's not going to come across the same in the consumer's experience," he said.

"I mean, hop character is about more than IBUs. It's about a combination of flavours and aromas and that comes out in different ways that a judge is going to be able to pick up, that a number in a laboratory just isn't going to be able to notice."

The analysis found about 22 per cent of samples had a detectable amount of contamination, including three medal-winning beers. Foster said that the analysis doesn't mean the judges made an error, but it should still be a cause for concern for Alberta breweries. 

"These are lab tests, which meant some of these contaminants are really, really low levels," he said. "Low levels that would be below human perception thresholds. But given time, given a couple of months in the bottle or the can, you would start to notice it. And that's why it matters."

Foster said it's easy for beer to contain low levels of contamination, but that it's an issue that breweries should work to improve. 


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