There’s nothing like the sound of a good beer.
And, no, not the refreshing, burbling splash as it’s poured into a glass and white foam rises to a head.
But the sound waves that brewers in the future could transmit through their fermenting beer to gauge its progress and pinpoint when it’s time to carbonate the beer — a high-tech departure from the age-old method of manually checking it.
Acoustic scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are developing technology to sonically monitor beer as it’s made, offering brewmasters a tool beyond their five senses to ensure each batch is consistent and of the highest quality.
It adds science to a centuries-old art.
“There’s still room for art,” lab scientist Eric Davis said. “This isn’t something to replace the art.
“This technology can give the brewmaster extra data. He still can make the decisions.”
For now, the lab’s team is focusing on microbreweries, although they have contacted big beer companies that later might try the technology, Davis said.
Some regional brewers have expressed an interest, and the next step is to conduct trial runs at their operations, Davis said. This will introduce the system to crafters and allow them to give feedback on what works best for them, he said.
The New Mexico Craft Brewers Association didn’t respond to an inquiry on how this technology might benefit its members.
In the 21st century, brewing beer is still mainly a manual process that requires pouring out some of the product to sample it, Davis said, which often wastes a portion of the beer and ties up a worker who could be doing other things.
Still, testing the beer while it’s fermenting is crucial, especially for larger operations with hundreds of gallons at stake, he said.
Overfermented beer can result in autolysis, in which yeast cells inject rank substances into the beer that ruin the flavor.
The new testing technology has multiple parts, Davis said.
A transmitter sends sound waves through the vats of beer to a receiver, where an instrument known as an oscilloscope converts the readings from analog to digital so they can be viewed on a computer.
Software eventually will be developed to make the data more user-friendly, Davis said.
This system will allow brewers to check the beer in real time as often as they want without losing any product or hindering the operation, he said.
This prototype works on the same basic principles as sensors the acoustics team has devised to analyze other types of liquids — for instance, for the fossil fuel industry, lab physicist Cristian Pantea said.
The instruments they’re using to track fermentation can detect chemical changes, including minute ones, occurring in the beer, Pantea said.
“When the properties of liquid or gas changes, you capture that,” Pantea said.
At the beginning of fermentation, there’s a load of sugar, and over time, the yeast consumes the sugar and releases carbon dioxide, creating gassy bubbles while the alcohol is forming, Davis said.
The way in which the sound waves interact with the fluid is different when they’re passing through gobs of sugar and bubbles than when these elements decrease toward the latter stage, Davis said.
Davis said they came up with the idea of applying the acoustic technology to fermentation while touring a bourbon distillery during a conference a few years ago.
“They certainly do a lot of things the old-fashioned way,” Davis said. “They do a lot of things in a way that really could be improved by technology.”
For example, Davis said they learned that a person takes a sample and runs it through an instrument rather than putting a monitoring device on the still, which can be read in real time. Sometimes, the worker discovers that a sample was taken too late to catch a batch that had fermented too long and had gone bad, Davis said.
Although this system could be applied to fermenting beer and spirits, the team decided to concentrate on beer for now, he said.
With beer, another challenge is disposing of the yeast slurry — congealed waste byproduct that settles at the bottom of the tank — after fermentation is finished.
Typically, a worker will drain the slurry from a tank but can dump good beer by mistake after the slurry has run out, Davis said.
An automated system can be set up to drain the slurry mechanically, with a sonic instrument sending a signal that closes the valves as soon as the sludge-like material is about to run out, he said.
This project falls under the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, in which Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories offer their technical expertise to smaller companies.
Davis said for now, the acoustics team will go to breweries that request a trial run and give them a demonstration. Those site visits also will allow the brewers to critique the technology, he said, adding that it will help them fine-tune the system.
Not everyone will embrace the technology, and some will prefer to stick to the old ways of sampling, smelling and taste tests, viewing their product almost like it’s their baby, he said.
“But when you really want to nail down consistency … then you pretty much have to go with a scientific method,” Davis said.