Shaffer: NC State scientists brew brainy beer

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 11, 2013 

Blake Layfield, left, John Sheppard and Lucas Vann, right, make up the senior core of the N.C. Brewery, which produces Pack Pilsner and other science-driven beers at N.C. State University.


— Down in the basement of Schaub Hall, a team of sud-splashed academics is ankle-deep in a puddle of Wolf-toberfest – the frothy product of their relentless research.

Lesser scientists around campus might be working on cloud computing or synthetic aortas, but this gang at N.C. State University is concocting liquid happiness by the 31-gallon tank.

Wolfpack beer.

Among their breakthroughs: Pack Pilsner. Chancellor’s Choice IPA. Brickyard Red. Graduator Maibock.

Considering these brews came from a pair of doctoral candidates and three more chasing master’s degrees in food science, it’s safe to bet nobody ever thought so hard about a glass of beer.

“Most brewers don’t even have a microscope,” says John Sheppard, the food science professor who directs the N.C. State Brewery.

The idea here is to train the eyes of science onto North Carolina’s brewing trade, which now produces more than 6 million barrels a year and sparks envy nationwide.

The N.C. State Brewery serves as a quiet partner trained in microbiology and chemical engineering, a resource that can tell you how to fight contamination, manage yeast and calculate your beer’s International Bitterness Units, or IBU.

Most of the amateurs out there can’t even accurately describe their beer’s color.

In Schaub’s basement, doctoral candidate Blake Layfield holds up a beer I’d describe as copper-colored. Maybe amber. Here’s the official word from the man writing his dissertation on cell-cycle synchronization and yeast management strategy, who employs something called the Standard Reference Method.

“As a scientist,” Layfield says, “I’m going to say this beer is 75 SRM. You can see right through it.”

Only at NCSU functions

The drawback is you can’t buy Wolfpack beer anywhere, unlike Wolfpack ice cream. The Umstead Act prohibits government agencies from competing with private businesses. Exemptions are many, but beer is not one of them. You can drink these brews at university functions only, and the sales at these campus events pay for the next batch’s supplies.

The way Layfield figures, the brewing industry could use a Ph.D. or two with heavyweights New Belgium and Oskar Blues setting up Tar Heel breweries. They could especially one who took a blue ribbon at the 2012 Brewer’s Cup – a new addition to the N.C. State Fair.

Of course, the pivotal moment in a beer researcher’s life is the moment when the experiments are tasted. Layfield handed me the kölsch, which – yes, boss – I drank on the clock. Research purposes. One difference with an N.C. State beer is it’s filtered to catch yeast particles.

Horse blanket, Band-Aid

These researchers employ a whole vocabulary of technical terms to describe a beer with a taste gone haywire. Horse blanket is one. Band-Aid is another.

But the good beers, of which there are many, provoke only one response from a daring researcher:

Repeat experiment. More data required. or 919-829-4818

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