Creativity might be key to developing a new beer recipe, but whether you’re brewing on a 25-hectolitre state-of-the-art system or making homebrew in old kegs in a shed, science sits at the heart of brewing.
In what feels like something of a coup for craft beer, the ABC’s flagship science show is set to take a deep dive into that side of beer and brewing.
The Big Brew Challenge is an episode of Catalyst airing on February 8, hosted by chef Paul West of River Cottage Australia fame, which sees three teams brewing beers under the guidance of Philter Brewing co-founder, head brewer and highly-regarded beer judge Sam Füss.
Show editor David Symonds says the decision to dedicate a show to beer can be traced back to an earlier episode. Back in 2019, Catalyst ran The Great Australian Bee Challenge – also hosted by Paul West – in which four families kept honeybee hives while exploring the complex science of bees and their importance within our food system. Both in that show and the upcoming one, David says the fascination for them and their audience stems from the interest people have in the provenance of the produce in their glasses and on their plates.
“There’s a growing interest in where food comes from,” he says. “The technology that’s going into improving the quality of food, how it’s grown, and how we feed ourselves.”
Many aspects of the industry outside of the brewing process are so steeped in science that David says it made the subject a natural choice. The show looks into the science of malting, yeast and hop chemistry, and also explores the technological developments taking place around beer, such as Young Henrys' Algae Project, which sees CO2 from brewing absorbed by tanks of microalgae installed at the Newtown brewery.
“It’s not just the science relating to beer brewing but also some of the science that’s spinning off brewing like biofuels,” David says. “[As well as] the various things they’re doing at [the University of Technology Sydney] at the climate cluster there, where they’re climate capturing from fermentation.”
The competition at the heart of the show sees the different teams - made up of Rosemary and Ashley in Pale, Doug and Euan in Sour and Pete and Paul in Stout – each brew a beer on Batch Brewing’s 350-litre system at their Small Batch home in Petersham under Sam’s mentorship. The final beers were then judged by drinks journalist Mike Bennie (above right) and beer educator and broadcaster Kirrily Waldhorn (above second from right), best known as the Beer Diva.
Sam (top left) has been a regular guest on ABC radio in Sydney and says she enjoyed not just the chance to be part of the show but also to be able to provide ideas as to how it could run, her main aim being to ensure "it wasn't just a nerdy homebrew show", a goal she says they achieved – even if Dan "VB" McCulloch, a regular on these pages, "came on and was a full-on nerd" when invited on to talk about yeast.
"It was great – such fun," she told The Crafty Pint. "I wanted to give it a bit of personality and to talk about what we do as craft brewers."
David says that when it came to finding participants, they looked for people who had only limited experience of brewing so they could both act as audience surrogates and also not come with any assumed knowledge.
“They ask questions, they learn stuff, and through their experience, you get to understand the science," he says. “And there’s the usual thing with competitions of people making mistakes and learning things from their mistakes.”
Paul West said the entire experience was fascinating for him. While he’s been involved in beer before, including a number of dinners with Stomping Ground, the hands-on experience of the show and the science gave him a far greater appreciation of the beer world and its ancient origins.
“I had a really superficial understanding of the brewery process, from a couple of homebrew experiments myself and some collaborations,” he says.
“Fermentation was probably one of the first human experiments with chemistry and has been around for almost as long as human civilisation, and we still use it today.”
A particularly rewarding part of the show for Paul was visiting Voyager Craft Malt. He’d first met Voyager founder Stuart Whytcross years ago when creating River Cottage.
“He was still experimenting with malting in 20-litre buckets on his family farm,” Paul recalls, adding how exciting he found the strong connection between growers, maltsters and brewers to be.
“There’s a real sense of pride from the farmers who are growing these grains. Obviously, they’re passionate about what they do and the land and the products they make, but rather than just putting it on a truck and taking it down to the grain bin and never seeing it again, they know that their passion is carried through by the passion of the brewer.”
When it comes to the wider appreciation of beer, whether in the kitchen or in communities, Paul says he thinks the culture has changed significantly.
“I feel like in Australia we’re finally appreciating the finesse of beer and that it doesn’t have to be this bulk, fizzy brown commodity,” he says.
“It was like coffee in Australia, where you’d get a coffee and as long as it was hot and black or white then that was as complex as it got. But now we’re realising there’s all these different expressions.”
As for what he hopes viewers will walk away with, he says: “I’d really like to see people have a crack at homebrewing,” Paul says, unsurprisingly for someone who has regularly advocated for people to grow their own food, while ruminating on why there's a growing desire for people to become part of our food system.
“In many careers and many lives, we don’t have much of an opportunity to actually produce things, to craft things and to build things ourselves.
“Not everyone is going to be a house-builder or a carpenter, but something like homebrewing is something you can have in your shed and experiment with, do with friends, and you get a product and result at the end that’s something you can be proud of and build a bit of ceremony around.”
While it's not the first time the local craft beer scene has appeared on our screen, seeing key figures from the industry alongside half a dozen eager beer lovers on a high profile show like Catalyst is another sign of its move into the mainstream.
"I think it's well overdue," Sam says, hopeful that craft beer's appearance on Catalyst will help open more doors for the industry she's been part of since it was very much on the fringes.
"Here in Australia, we've got such an amazing scene and some amazing people throughout it – so many characters doing great stuff. We used to follow the US, but we're starting to be the trend-setters."
The Big Brew Challenge will air on ABC TV at 8.30pm on February 8.