Secret of a perfect pint is in the science

Published on Sunday 10 May, 2009.

From fizzy pints to the secret formula, John Reynolds looks behing the scenes at the Guinness laboratory

SEVERAL huge cylindrical brewery tanks loom overhead as a sweet malty aroma wafts through the air outside Diageo’s St James’s Gate brewery.

The yeast used in Guinness is grown only here at St James’s Gate, and is so valuable that a reserve stock is kept locked away in a safe somewhere. If anything happened to the main supply, then this could be used to replenish it in just a few hours so that drinkers wouldn’t go thirsty.

Guinness celebrates its 250th birthday this year, and the Sunday Independent is here to meet some of the scientists that work at Diageo’s recently established Global Beer Technical Centre.

There’s also a chance that I’ll stumble across that top-secret strain of yeast. It’s been used since the 19th Century and legend has it that it’s descended from the strain that was used by Arthur Guinness himself.

The yeast — wherever it is — isn’t the only treasure here. Diageo made profits of £2.3bn on £8bn of sales last year, and a hefty chunk of its Irish wage bill has made some car dealers very happy. Several million euro worth of Mercedes and Audis, VWs, BMWs and a few expensive 4x4s, plus the odd Toyota supermini are in the car park.

On the way to my first meeting, I descend some steps to walk through a tunnel, one of several that wind their way underneath this huge site. The safe could be in any one of them.

Working from a nearby block of offices and laboratories, Frank Lynch, technology and development director, and his team have two pilot plants, tasting rooms and a vast knowledge bank at their disposal. The science and innovation behind the perfect pint has taken place here since 1901, and is now fundamental to success in Diageo’s overseas markets, where Guinness sales grew by six per cent last year. Particularly important is Africa, where a third of all Guinness is sold and where sales are up by 13 per cent.

“Brewing is knowledge intensive and we create the know-how to continuously monitor our drinks’ quality and their production processes,” says Lynch.

“Our costs are critical to our profitability and our ability to sustain growth. We look for inefficiencies. We hunt down and eliminate waste.”

Having worked here since 1980, he oversees a team of about 20 people, about 12 of whom are currently in Africa, with the remainder based in Dublin, where another 37 people work in related roles. All of his colleagues have taken brewing and packaging exams, adding to their strong core competencies of microbiology, engineering or food science MSc. and PhD graduates.

“We link up different fields of knowledge by moving people between operations and the R&D. On average, only one in 100 innovations will succeed, so we need technical and commercial due diligence to mitigate the risks involved in developing new drinks,” he adds.

Diageo’s nearby pilot brewing facility houses €2m worth of shiny cylindrical tanks and a maze of metal walkways, pipelines and valves, switchpanels and computers. In one corner some steam hisses out of a valve, as process development manager Joe Bergin shows me around. Perhaps the safe is hidden in here somewhere.

The pilot brewery’s 300-bottle capacity means that a new product can be created in a day and despatched to a small trial group of consumers for feedback, while a 6,000-bottle brewery on the floor below facilitates larger trials.

“Having this beside our traditional brewery allows us to compare new techniques with old traditions so that we can come up with future innovations,” technical director Christian Van der Heide says. His brewing career spans more than 20 years and has included overseas stints in Germany, Canada and Belgium. He is also president of the European Brewing Convention, a brewing science group.

Finding the optimum flavour is an exact science and testing drinks from the company’s partner breweries around the globe requires both human tasters and electronic ones.

Surrounded by shelves full of bottles of Guinness and other Diageo drinks in the company’s laboratory, chemist David Jackson uses all kinds of wizardry such as mass spectrometers and tasting machines to take 100,000 analytical measurements every year.

In the nearby tasting booths, 10 qualified tasters regularly taste, detect and describe the drinks’ good and bad flavours and aromas, comparing them to an ideal profile. “Being a Guinness taster sounds like the ideal job, but it can be exhaustingly hard work. They spend three intense hours concentrating and analysing 30 different attributes of beers and then scoring them between zero and 100,” he says.

Science is also behind the famous Guinness widget. Packaging manager Joe Whyte, working with his colleague Frank Lynch, took five years to develop it. Starting life in the early Nineties, it initially came in the form of a small plastic syringe. This was used to suck up some liquid and then inject it back into the glass to create the head.

After experimenting with thousands of ping-pong balls, their next widget was an expensive and cumbersome plastic chamber that sat at the bottom of a can. Success came eventually with the floating widget, however: a plastic ball with a tiny hole in it. It fills with gas and liquid, which creates a head when it is poured from the can.

More recently, they invented the rocket widget for bottled draught Guinness, which is especially popular in the US and Japan.

With wings to stop it coming out of the neck of the bottle, Diageo’s British widget manufacturer uses specialist machinery to make it there.

Once a new drink or new widget hits the market, brewmaster Fergal Murray, the face of Guinness, travels around the globe, speaking to audiences that range from the company’s 20,000 employees to brewing aficionados and the media.

He recently trained 40 US Congressmen to pour a pint of Guinness, has rung the Stock Exchange closing bell on Wall Street and has launched new drinks in Nigeria, Ghana, Finland, Brazil, Singapore and Korea.

One of the first people to get a PC at St James’s Gate, where he started as a research chemist,Fergal Murray’s 25-year career has involved stints in the US and Africa.

“In growing markets such as Asia, people will pay a premium for a product that tastes and looks great. They’re interested in its history in Ireland, in what makes Guinness special and what makes it tick,” Murray says.

Speaking of which, surely he’s the very man who knows where the secret yeast is kept, In the same way as when you’re waiting for a pint of the black stuff to settle, so my patience is eventually rewarded.

A replica of the legendary safe is on view to the public in the Storehouse, he reveals. “But the original safe is in a strong room, where it cannot be accessed for security reasons, next door to one of the director’s offices,” he concludes.

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