Could a college project be the next advancement in fermentation?

Could a college project be the next advancement in fermentation?


By Mathew Muncy for Indiana On Tap

If you went to college, you likely spent your free time either studying or drinking beer. Maybe you did both at the same time. However, three students from the University of Pennsylvania put on their thinking caps and devised a plan to get those beers to their fellow classmates even quicker.

Alexander David, Shashwata Narain, and Siddharth Shah, students of the Wharton School of Engineering and Applied Science, were the winners of the 2016 Y-Prize Competition for designing a process that would speed up the beer fermentation process by nine times its normal rate.

To take home the $10,000 grand prize, teams had to “propose novel applications for one or more of the featured technologies,” according to the Y-Prize Competition website. Each team has to submit a video pitch and slide deck that judges would use to evaluate them on market opportunity, value proposition, team strength, and execution plan. The final fours team had to pitch their ideas in front of an audience and panel of judges.

Their team – called Fermento – proposed using microfluidic fabrication technology to accelerate the process, in which yeast converts sugar to delicious alcohol, by 70 percent. The process would increase the surface area of liquid sugars exposed to the yeast.

“This process typically takes up to three weeks in a standard batch reactor setting, making it the longest step in the $520 billion global industry’s production process,” the press release said.


The plan uses microdroplets to introduce the optimal amount of yeast and wort together.

“Microdroplets to speed up fermentation have been tried in labs, but none of the technologies so far are scalable,” Narain told the Penn Current. “This patented technology actually makes the process industrially scalable for the first time, and in a financially feasible manner.”

Speeding up the fermentation process would allow breweries to produce more of their staple beers, thus increasing their profitability. However, it could also lead to producing off flavors within the beer.

“The more that a batch is rushed and stressed, the less time the yeast has to try and clean up some of the off flavors,” Jake Koenemen, co-founder of Central State Brewing, told me. “Stressed yeast/processes lead to errors.”

While macro breweries and the larger craft breweries, like Boston Beer Company or Sun King Brewing, could benefit from this technology, small batch breweries, like Central State, likely wouldn’t benefit much, if at all.

“Central State, however, takes a much more traditional and old world view of fermentation and like to allow our yeast to perform their magic in the time they need, which creating an environment for them to do their work happily,” Central State co-founder and head brewer Josh Hambright told me via email. “We give the yeast a lot of freedom in our brewery and they get to call the shots a bit more than most brewers allow their yeast to express themselves so this new technique isn’t something we are looking at very closely for our production environment.”

Fermento still has some work to do before their idea becomes a reality, but if they can figure out how to maintain the beer’s quality, then their idea could be a massive gamechanger.

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