The mysteries of beer

Like cooking, brewing beer can be viewed as an art or a series of chemical reactions. Far from being contradictory, these two aspects are combined by the brewers: they play with science to produce better quality beers, avoid excessive flavor variations or, on the contrary, explore new flavor palettes.

Posted at 12:00 p.m

Chloe Bourquin

Chloe Bourquin
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grain, water, yeast and hops. The ingredients for the beer recipe seem quite simple at first glance. “But for it to taste and look like beer, each ingredient has to be carefully selected,” says Mario Jolicoeur, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, who has taught an engineering course there for almost 10 years.


Mario Jolicoeur, a professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, mainly grows hop plants.

For example, water contains certain minerals that affect the chemical reactions that take place during brewing. There are also a variety of grains (barley, wheat, oats, etc.) whose germination is stopped more or less early to give different malts. “We can play with the humidity and the drying temperature of the malt to go from a very light grain to a toasted grain with chocolate, coffee nuances,” explains Mario Jolicoeur.

In a stout, with only 5% very dark grain, you get a dark beer. By blending different malts we build up the color and flavor of the beer we will get.

Mario Jolicoeur, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal


In all colors and flavors

What about hops? “We add it at the beginning or end of cooking to play with the bitterness but also to give it a floral or vegetal character. In this way, the characteristics of the beer are built up by adding aromas,” the professor specifies. Yeasts, essential for fermentation, also allow the development of particular aromas. “We can use multiple yeasts, even certain bacteria, to produce lactic acid and acidify the beer; this is especially true for sour beers,” explains Mario Jolicœur.


hop plant

Strict quality control

Once the ingredients have been selected, it’s time to get down to business: brewing. Then it’s time to proceed consistently. “A small mistake at the beginning of the process can lead to a very large difference in taste at the end,” emphasizes Mario Jolicoeur.

To avoid such a situation, “we check the temperature and duration of each step, as well as the acidity and density of the liquid, particularly to predict the final alcohol content,” explains Mike Doucette, a researcher in the New Brunswick Community’s Applied Research and Innovation Network College.

Some microbreweries turn to outside labs like Mike Doucette’s to help them develop a new recipe or adopt best practices. Others have chosen to push the scientific side further: New Brunswick-based microbrewery Grimross, for example, has set up a laboratory on its premises to test samples of the beers it produces every week.


Devin Kearney, Quality Control Engineer, in his lab

“We check alcohol, carbonation, oxygenation, bitterness, color, clarity…” lists Devin Kearney, Grimross Quality Control Engineer. “We want to make sure customers have the same experience every time they open one of our beers. »

Quebec microbreweries in numbers

  • 302 brewery companies were founded in Quebec in May 2022
  • 57% of these were created between 2015 and 2022
  • 34% of these are in cities with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants

Source: Quebec Microbrewery Association

A scientific and taste playground

It’s also possible to play with all this underlying science to innovate and explore new flavor palettes. “In small craft breweries we try to surprise the consumer. Chemists then try to figure out which compound is responsible for this or that flavor and advise brewers to constantly invent new recipes,” says Professor Dale Wood. The latter established a Certificate in Brewing Sciences at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke to train a dozen students each year in the ingredients, processes and analysis methods specific to beer brewing.


brew beer

“When you use the right ingredients and get it right, it becomes hard to miss a beer. If a beer isn’t bad, it will find its audience, because there are always people who like beers that are exceptional, whether they are very bitter, very flowery or even tasteless, nothing at all,” says Mario Jolicoeur with a smile.

On the way to a 100% local beer?

Researchers are also helping brewers replace certain ingredients imported from the West with Quebec-grown malt or hops to work towards a 100% local beer.


Mike Doucette

Beer is quite a unique product as you can find all the ingredients you need right here. And a beer made with local ingredients cannot be reproduced anywhere else.

Mike Doucette, researcher at New Brunswick Community College’s Applied Research and Innovation Network

Upstream, Quebec producers work with scientists to meet the needs of breweries. “We don’t have the same climate or soil type in Quebec as we do on the West Coast, so hops, for example, can taste different if they’re grown here,” says Dale Wood. “We can then do analysis and advise producers on minerals to add to their soil. »

Each microbrewery has its own recipes, know-how, but also its own ingredients (local or imported), which explains the wide variety of Quebec beers. “I often encourage people to travel around Quebec and go to small towns to try local beers. You can find really unique and interesting products here,” says the professor.

Barley and hop production in figures

2.5 million hectares

Area for barley production in Western Canada

46,500 hectares

Area for barley production in Quebec

230 tons

Hop cultivation in Canada

From 65 to 80 tons

Hop production in Quebec

Source: Quebec Agriculture and Agrifood Reference Center

Chloé Bourquin, author of the article and freelance journalist The press, is a PhD student at Polytechnique Montréal. She has no connection or affiliation with Mario Jolicoeur, a professor at Polytechnique Montréal cited in this article.

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