If you haven’t yet given a hearty yes to an alcohol-free or low-alcohol beer, it may be due to its somewhat flat and watery character. It’s called a lack of "fullness" in scientific jargon. Leuven researchers are looking for the solution in the fibres found within the grain.
In terms of taste, beers with a low alcohol percentage have come a long way. Because the beer is less yeasted or fermented and the alcohol is removed, brews from the first batches lacked in the area of aromas and flavourings. Thanks to recent research there has been a noticeable improvement of late.
But the hang-up has always been the body, the texture of the beer. Certainly with regard to the specialty beers to which we Belgians are so attached, that fullness is important. And that aspect is difficult to investigate – a apparatus cannot tell you what a beer feels like in the mouth.
Breweries want to take advantage of this trend with their range of non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beer.
Mocktail or nablab?
But consumers want healthier drinks, as evidenced by the many recipes for trendy mocktails. Breweries are trying to take advantage of this trend by offering a range of nablab (non-alcoholic beer and low-alcohol beer). Consequently, experiments are underway to rid nablab beer of its watery image.
In the Laboratory for Food Chemistry and Biochemistry, researchers are studying how to get beer ingredients to react and how to adapt the processes of malting – sprouting and drying barley – and brewing with water, hops and yeast to obtain a more full-bodied beer, says Professor Christophe Courtin.
Courtain’s team is looking for a nablab solution in dietary fibres: “These are indigestible fibres that naturally occur in plant foods. They’re found in vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds and they have many health benefits, such as good intestinal function.” And you guessed it: there exists such a thing as the fibre gap, in that we don't get enough fibre in our diet. Our main source of dietary fibre is bread, therefore dietitians advocate eating whole-grain bread.
Courtin's team already has a great deal of expertise in bread: “We’re investigating the effect of dietary fibres in products such as bread or puff pastry, or their impact during processes such as baking. And we’re also looking at the different types of dietary fibre: you can play with the proportions to improve the balance. For example, by adding enzymes you can make a wholemeal bread even healthier: by doing do, the dietary fibres become prebiotics.”
Beer also contains dietary fibres derived from its raw materials: barley, oats, wheat, rye, etc. But with beer the key issue is not so much the health aspect as the function of dietary fibres. “Those fibres are broken down to a greater or lesser extent during brewing and partly end up in the beer. You can compare them with pearl necklaces, but on a molecular level: some form long strings that intertwine faster and give the liquid a certain thickness. That also imparts the fullness we’re striving for.”
Although it’s a matter of looking for the right strings of pearls: “You have them in all sizes and shapes, depending on the different types of grains, and you can subject them to various processes of malting and brewing. So it’s a matter of looking for the right combination: which ingredients and which processes."
“The intention is that our students will bring innovation to the beer industry after their training.”
A number of test beers were specially brewed for this research. Because fullness cannot be measured with an apparatus, a trained tasting panel was deployed to compare the test beers in terms of fullness. That was a success. “We’ve completed a part of the puzzle and were able to propose a solution. But much further research is still needed.”
Whilst companies can turn to Courtin for advice on grains in the malt and brewing process, there is plenty of other beer expertise within KU Leuven: “In addition to our team, there are also groups – in Leuven and Campus Ghent – that work on yeast, hops, brewing … all are grouped together in the Leuven Institute for Beer Research (LIBR).”
Malt and brewing sciences
Since 2020, these various aspects of beer expertise have been bundled together in a new programme: the international postgraduate malt and brewing sciences. The establishment of the one-year course was made possible thanks to the AB InBev Chair in Malting and Brewing.
It is exceptional that a chair – a donation to a university – goes to a training programme, as most chairs go to research. “There is a real demand in the industry for these profiles offering insight into the entire beer production chain, and there was as yet no comprehensive Flemish training. And not just AB InBev, but large malt players and small geuze breweries are also showing interest.”
Due to the corona pandemic, the training programme got off to a slow start. “Our target is 25 students. We’ve now started with seven students who already have a master's degree in (bio)engineering sciences or exact sciences. The intention is that they’ll ensure innovation in the beer industry after their training." Some of us are hoping in advance that these new specialists will provide a nice nablab that can supplement our fibre deficiency.
With thanks to Niels Langenaeken