QA/QC service solutions
"Since we're part of the university, we have so many resources," says Strain of Metropolitan State University of Denver's year-old Beverage Analytics QA/QC Laboratory. "We can test for a lot of things that other labs can't test for."
Located within the Tivoli building on the Auraria campus, the lab offers several services, the most popular being a test for alcohol content. It also offers nutritional analysis -- how many carbohydrates and calories are in a beer? -- and water testing. "I've gotten samples from all around the country for water analysis," says Strain. That data allows brewers to adjust their own water supply for different styles of beer.
The school's Beer Industry Program also benefits from having its own microbiologist, Helene Ver Eecke, on campus. Ver Eecke can run rapid PCR testing to discover bacterial contaminants and wild yeasts, when brewers run into emergency situations. "We can give them results in three hours whether or not they have a problem," says Strain.
In addition to breweries, Strain has also worked with cider and mead makers, a kombucha company, and she plans to begin testing for a coffee concern. In the longer term, she envisions offering testing to the wine industry, as well.
MSU Denver's lab is part of its Beer Industry Program, which has around 100 students enrolled in it. While some colleges offer beer-related degrees with their science departments, MSU Denver's program is housed within MSU Denver's School of Hospitality, Events and Tourism. "By being housed within the School of Hospitality, we're really able to broaden that degree for and offer students a lot of different paths within their education," says Scott Kerkmans, director of the program.
For instance, some students may want to go into the hospitality aspect of running a brewery, while others might want to specialize in brewing itself. Students can learn, for instance, about keg distribution and logistics, sales and marketing, production, how to run a canning line, and how to chemically identify off-flavors in beer using lab equipment (one specialty of faculty lecturer Ethan Tsai, who also runs QA/QC operations for the adjacent Tivoli Brewing Company). "The fact that we have a full bachelor's degree really sets us apart," adds Kerkmans, noting that some other schools only offer certifications in the field.
MSU Denver has also formed a partnership with the Siebel Institute of Technology, the beer training college based in Chicago. Siebel refers clients to MSU Denver for testing services. The partnership was announced at the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in April, which is when MSU Denver's lab began more broadly offering its services commercially.
Before the CBC event, MSU Denver's lab had about a half dozen clients. Strain offers an update: "We're at about 15 or 16 clients right now. And not all of them are from Colorado: I've got someone from Michigan that's sent samples a few times, we've had someone from Miami, somebody from California." She adds, "Once they submit a sample one time, usually we get them back. They see the value in getting their drinks tested for a ton of different parameters."
Although students learn by helping to run the samples received, Strain makes her own independent confirmation of the results, which then get shared with clients. "Every test that's for a commercial client, I run at least one replicate," she says.
Strain began working for MSU Denver in October 2018. Previously, she was employed at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Strain says, "I was running the lab at their Fermentation Science Institute. I had helped build that lab from the ground up. When I applied for the job, [the lab] hadn't even been constructed." Strain helped determine what equipment to purchase, how the lab should be designed, what testing services the state's beer and wine industries were looking for. She didn't have the MSU Denver job yet when she left Illinois with her husband, but Strain sent Kerkmans an email offering her lab skills. "I knew MSU Denver had a good, reputable brewery program," she says.
Strain makes use of a variety of equipment, such as an HPLC (for determining alpha acids in hops -- whether they're still fresh or not), a cellometer (for cell counts), a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, an electron capture detector, a flame ionization detector, and a muffle furnace (for burning liquids down to their remaining mineral content).
Strain's job allows her to be a self-described lab geek, as well as a people person. "I love that I never know what's coming in the next day," says Strain. "I love that I'm doing a ton of different tests all the time, I'm not doing the same test over and over again." Furthermore, she adds, "I love meeting our clients, I love talking to them: It's a dynamic industry, it's changing a lot."
Helping the beer industry also entails educating a capable workforce, possibly leading to future jobs for the school's present-day students. Strain says, "We just want to help the industry as best as we can. We want to help them produce quality beverages. And then train our students, too, [so] that when they get out there, [they know] this is what to look for or this is what to test for, this is how you test for it. Things like that."
Challenges: "Bringing in clients," says Strain. "The last several months have been all about building up the lab infrastructure, getting everything ready -- because there's no point in promoting a lab if you don't have everything set up and ready to go."
Opportunities: Helping a growing industry make better beer, says Strain: "I feel like we're here mostly for the smaller breweries that don't have the money to build a lab infrastructure. For a few thousand dollars a year, they can get a ton of testing here."
The funds generated from its testing services will also allow MSU Denver to buy additional equipment to help educate its students.
Needs: Strain says, "Samples, clients. We're still [taking] baby steps getting going. I feel once we get the ball rolling, it will be awesome. It will be great. I'll be swamped. It will be a good thing."