More than just a drink: Analyzing the elemental composition of beer

Analyzing the composition of a beverage, such as beer, can provide labs with vital information about any potential contaminants and trace metallic elements. These components can affect the taste, alcohol level, and nutrient profile of beer and need to be carefully monitored during the production process.

The New Belgium Brewing Company is one of the top 10 craft breweries in the United States. In a recent case study, the company shared how it measures and analyzes the levels of different metallic elements during its brewing process.

Monitoring metals of interest in the brewing process

Both the ingredients used in the making of beer and the process of brewing itself contribute to the elemental composition of beer. Malts (malted barley, malted wheat, malted rye) and adjuncts (unmalted grains, such as unmalted barley, rice, and other cereals) are the most significant contributors to mineral content in beer. Other ingredients, such as hops, yeast, and salts, are more minor contributors.

The two areas of focus in the New Belgium Brewing Company case study were the fermentation and filtration process. These areas include the analysis of wort (an infusion of ground malt or other grain before the fermentation process) and finished beer. The primary minerals of interest in these two processes are calcium, potassium, iron, copper, and zinc. All these elements need to be carefully and continuously monitored during brewing runs.

Lab set-up at the New Belgium Brewing Company

The lab operates 365 days per year – even when the brewery is shut down – and people come in to monitor the elemental composition of fermentations (a critical part of the process). In addition to using an Agilent 5110 ICP-OES system for measuring elemental composition, the New Belgium Brewing Company lab has instruments to measure alcohol levels, pH, color, density, foam instability, and turbidity. The company also operates multiple gas chromatography systems to monitor flavor compounds, for example, hop aroma and fermentation multiples. Finally, the lab uses liquid chromatography systems to measure bitterness compounds in beer and organic acid profiles for barrel-aged beers. On any given day, the brewery could be carrying out quality control or research and development analysis.

Challenges associated with elemental composition analysis of beer

Besides the temptation to drink the samples, there are some challenges that arise when analyzing beer. The instruments used for beverage analysis need to generate data quickly and easily. It is important to maintain high analytical performance while also dealing with complex matrix matching challenges.

Key challenges for labs involved in beer analysis include:

  • High number of samples
  • Maintaining stable and robust plasma throughout analysis with complex sample types
  • High analytical performance for quality control
  • Reproducible results when multiple operators are involved
  • Pressure to increase productivity levels and reduce costs.

Meeting the challenges

Plasma-based techniques are common in elemental composition analysis of beverages. Knowledge regarding the functions of metals and their speciation in brewing are of special significance in beer. Agilent’s ICP-OES atomic spectroscopy portfolio is widely used for elemental analysis due to its ease of use, speed, and high analytical performance.

Launched in May 2016, the Agilent 5110 ICP-OES is a key tool in the New Belgium Brewing lab, as it is ideally suited to meet the company’s needs. The instrument is able to optimize critical inputs in the brewing process. For example, zinc is a key element for yeast health. It is added to wort (the sweet infusion of ground malt or other grain before fermentation) as a nutrient, to ensure healthy fermentation. Zinc levels are profiled in different worts, these profiles are then compared to individual fermentation performances. Based on this analysis, the brewer is able to optimize zinc dosing in the different wort variations.

The lab develops specifications for its beers at different stages of the brewing process. At the same time, the Agilent ICP-OES 5100 is used to build process control charts across all brands. It is also used to identify process issues with the results correlating to a sensory panel.

The instrument answers key challenges for labs involved in beer analysis. For example, by using the IntelliQuant mode, methods can be simplified, enabling rapid screening that allows a user to view all the elements in a sample at a glance. Furthermore, the device runs the fastest ICP-OES analyses while using less gas, due to a unique Dichroic Spectral Combiner. The combiner enables synchronous radial and axial measurements. The Agilent ICP-OES has a vertical torch, making the device capable of measuring even the most complex and challenging high matrix samples.

For more details on applications and unique capabilities of the Agilent 5100 ICP-OES,  visit the Agilent website.  For more information about elemental beverage testing, watch the full New Belgium Brewing Company case study webinar.

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