Niels Langenaeken’s fascination with beer dates back to his years at secondary school. During the ‘free elective’ hours, he was able to experiment with brewing for the very first time. And he loved it. With his brother Sven and friend Boris, he rebuilt his garage into a home brewery. “With a thirty-five-litre kettle – which we got from my grandmother’s butcher shop – a homemade cooler and filter and an old freezer. When we tried our first brew, we were happy that it had foam and was drinkable.”
Practice makes perfect. At family parties, Niels was proudly able to present bottles of self-brewed beer. He studied bioengineering and dreamed of becoming a real brewer one day, though he always remained grounded. “Despite the beer hype, which has given microbrewers an enormous boost over the past few years, it is still a risky undertaking for a starter. Being a researcher struck me as being at least as interesting.”
Why is the texture of beer different – fuller – than that of water?
Today, we find Niels in the brand-new KU Leuven Lab of Food Chemistry and Biochemistry. For his doctoral research, he focused on the role of carbohydrates in malting and brewing processes. “I also researched the mouthfeel of beer and how it is affected by carbohydrates. Why is the texture of beer different – fuller – than that of water? Research into mouthfeel has long been looked down on somewhat. But taste is not only a question of aroma; texture also plays a role. But it is much harder to research. Aroma can be analysed with a gas chromatograph, but texture can only be tasted. Asking people to describe texture and then linking that to other parameters is very difficult.
Over the course of his research, Niels studied ways of making low-alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers taste better. “These are typical beers with watery mouthfeel. We brewed a special test beer specifically for this project. A panel compared the taste with that of a control beer. It turned out that our test beer had fuller body. We were very pleased, of course. So we had found one piece of the puzzle and were able to propose a solution. But far more research is needed.”
Now that he has finished his doctorate, Niels is applying for an FWO project so that he can continue his research as a postdoc. “I am also going to teach a practical as part of the new postgraduate programme on Malting and Brewing Science.”
In addition, he will of course continue to brew. Three years ago, he, Sven and Boris founded Polygoon, their own brewery: “We use the infrastructure of a brewery nearby and have released three beers so far. We sell about five thousand litres per year. To sell more, we would have to promote it, and it wouldn’t be as fun. At the moment it is still a hobby, but one which pays for itself.”