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students in fermentation lab
April 5, 2024

Students draft the first fermentation lab

Written By: Claire Massey


Down in the depths of the basement in Engineering Hall, something is brewing….

This semester, Brian Pfleger, a Karen and William Monfre Professor and a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of chemical and biological engineering at UW-Madison, is working on an exciting project—setting up a fermentation lab. Along with seniors Aidan Bomski, Lauren Carlisle, Ethan Saye and Harith Razif, and PhD student, Josh Abraham, they are hopping around, putting equipment together, acquiring ingredients, and brewing some of the department’s first ever beer in the new John C. Kuetemeyer Instructional Laboratory. Their goal at the end of the semester is not only to brew a variety of beers, but also to create experiments that will be incorporated into a manual for future courses.

Grains used during brewing process
Different grains in the beer result in different flavor profiles.
Brewing beginnings

At the start of the semester, they first had to inventory and sanitize their equipment, all of which was donated by Tom Nieman BSChE ’81, owner of Foxtown Brewing in Mequon Wisconsin. When his operation expanded, he knew exactly where to donate the equipment that he had outgrown. He sent it to his alma mater which was close to opening a brand-new instructional lab space in the basement of Engineering Hall.

In March, the team brewed their second batch of beer and designed recipes for the next few flights! A big part of the work involved in these first batches was determining the layout of the lab and optimizing each step in the brewing process. As the students brewed the first batches, they evaluated how to best use the space and troubleshot future experiments to help ensure the lab course runs efficiently and as smooth as the beer.

Brian looks forward to the impact it can have on students’ education, “In a fermentation lab you really have all the fundamental elements from every class we teach, material balances, heat exchange, energy efficiency, kinetics, control, and even thermodynamics.”

Carlisle agrees. “It really challenges us to come up with experiments and be creative. It’s very different compared to other labs and classes that already have experiments set up and laid out for you,” she says.

Germinating the course manual

By taking an independent studies course, the students are getting hands-on experience that goes towards their degree. But there is a lot more going on under the surface. A major focus of the students’ work is designing the experiments for future courses. As students themselves, they provide a unique opinion on what skills are the most important for them to learn and which experiments they think students will enjoy the most. At the end of the semester, their work will culminate into a manual that will guide the fermentation course as part of Summer Lab—which will be in the new lab space this year.

Students experiment with small scale brewing and fermentation.

As the students work on designing experiments for the class manual, they reflect on the basic principles they were taught in class as foundational principles they should focus their content on. They also use a backwards teaching process, which first starts with the learning outcome. Then, they continue to work their way back and determine how students will measure the outcome of the experiment. In brewing, there are a lot of unique ways to measure the experiments including alcohol content, the darkness and heaviness of the beer, and of course the taste of the beer!

After they determine the learning method and the method of measurement for the experiment, Abraham and the other seniors can establish the corresponding conditions and methods. When designing, they also keep in mind what parts of the fermenting experiment they can control and what stays constant. Often, a lot of the variables of an experiment are present during the mashing process when the crushed grains mix with water to form a malty liquid called wort. It’s during the mashing process that the malt and other starches turn into sugars. In this stage of the process, students can add different types of grains, as well as change the temperature and timing to see how the beer changes.

Beer ferments in brewing tank.

Bomski is excited about the opportunity for him and future students to work on biological experiments which aren’t as common in the current curriculum. He also notes that the fermentation lab can also give students a lot of experience working with novel equipment. “Fiddling with the equipment and the temperature can have a sizable effect on the beer, whether it’s good or bad,” says Bomski.

“I love how much hands-on experience there is here at UW-Madison. Coming down here [to the fermentation lab] will be a great experience for students and also help them understand what they’re looking for in a career and what they’re passionate about,” says Abraham. “It also shows exactly how these theoretical ideas and philosophies from class have real life impacts, especially in something more common and approachable like brewing.”

Fermenting the future

Gazing beyond the lab, Saye hopes that with the future course and experiments, the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department can help shape the brewing industry. “Through our experiments we can discover something that improves the brewing industry as a whole. We can find ways to brew faster and more efficient, and experiment with different temperatures during the mashing stages for different periods of time to determine optimal temperature profiles,” he says.

Next on the agenda, Pfleger intends to challenge each of his five students to put on their brew master hats and create their own recipe for a red blend beer. “They’ll need to use different grains to achieve different color and flavor profiles,” says Pfleger. He then hopes he can sample these “badger red” beers to celebrate the students’ careers as they end their summer.

To read more about the early planning and start of lab renovations, check out Planning underway to overhaul CBE lab space in Engineering Hall and Undergraduate lab renovation kicks off, but still needs alumni support.

Featured image: Chemical and biological engineering students Aidan Bomski, Lauren Carlisle, Ethan Saye, Josh Abraham (PhD student) and Harith Razif (from left to right) worked together in the fermentation lab to create the future course manual during the Spring 2024 semester.

Photo credit: Claire Massey