A PhD in Brewing

In summer 2021, I started researching towards a PhD in Brewing & Beverage Technology in Berlin, Germany. Having submitted my dissertation and completing my MSc Brewing & Distilling degree at Heriot Watt University in December 2020, I was ready for the next challenge. My motivation to pursue a PhD is to gain a better technical understanding of the brewing process and also to contribute something to the field. Admittedly, the former motivation was also my main reason for studying a Master’s in brewing but, as was to be expected, some gaps in my understanding still remained after graduation. And there will almost certainly remain some gaps upon completion of the PhD too. Every day is a school day.

The objective of this blog post is to summarise my PhD structure and progress so far as well as inform those who may be considering a similar path in the future. But before I get into the details, here are some key facts and figures:

Area of study: Brewing & Beverage Technology; Analytical Chemistry

Length: part time, hopefully 4-5 years. Currently in first year.

Location: Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei (VLB) Berlin e.V. and Technische Universität Berlin

Style of PhD: external, i.e. not at a University and a cumulative thesis comprising three peer-reviewed journal articles.

Tuition fees: none

Funding: fully-funded. At the VLB Berlin, our project work is funded by the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy). Yes, you read that correctly. The German government is committed to the cause of improving beer quality.

VLB Berlin’s newly built research complex in Berlin-Wedding

In order to provide some context, I work as a full-time Research Assistant at the VLB Berlin, an internationally recognised research and educational institute for brewing science and technology. In my job, my main responsibility is to carry out project-based, scientific research relating to the field of brewing chemistry. This involves laboratory-based experimental work and providing analytical services to the brewing industry. Thanks to the kind support of my employer, I will present the data collected in research project work in my final PhD thesis.

Firstly, the structure of the PhD thesis is a cumulation of three peer-reviewed journal articles written in the English language. In all three publications, I must be the first author and the articles must appear in a scientific journal. As opposed to writing a long, book-style PhD thesis, the cumulative approach is shorter in length and seems to be common in Germany for external PhD candidates, i.e. those who do not have a direct affiliation with a University and thus carry out industry-based research. However, a University partner is required for submission and evaluation of the thesis. Therefore, my intention is to eventually submit a doctoral thesis to the Technische Universität Berlin Fakultät III Prozesswissenschaften for a Doctor of Natural Sciences degree.

The centrepiece of the analytical laboratory – a gas chromatograph coupled with a tandem mass spectrometer

And now for the exciting part: the content of my PhD research. Whilst the exact title of my PhD thesis is yet to be determined, I have a broad plan to guide my data collection over the next 2-3 years. The wider focus in our research group is the flavour stability of beer. More specifically, I am currently investigating the stability of hop derived, trace-level, volatile sulphur compounds (VSC) in beer with the application of gas chromatography. In certain beer styles, hop derived VSC, including thiols and disulphides, can either be considered as desirable “on-flavours”, such as grapefruit or tropical fruit aromas, or unpleasant “off-flavours”, e.g. cooked vegetable or sewage aromas. The aim is to investigate the role that various technical and technological parameters, including oxygen, transition metals and other non-volatile components, play in the stability of aroma-active VSC in beer. Whilst my research focus may appear to be rather abstract, or perhaps lacking in immediate, practical relevance to brewers, it is fascinating to address a beer quality issue faced by the wider brewing industry. In simpler terms, we want to understand how brewers can preserve the fresh, hoppy aroma in packaged beer.

Beer analysis in the lab

In my personal experience, the PhD has been a positive experience so far. I am part of a highly skilled, supportive research group and the relationship with my supervisor is solid. It is particularly satisfying when progress is made, no matter how seemingly minute it may be. Which brings me to my main grumble: the slow pace at which progress happens. Sometimes more important tasks may take priority over my research or technical malfunction leads to instrument downtime, which can make progress slow and seldom. But on the whole, it’s fun to learn about the science of brewing and get nerdy about beer in a way in which I never even knew was possible until recently.

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