Beer Boffins: Professor David Cook

AB InBev Professor of Brewing Science, University of Nottingham


Beer is in David Cook’s blood. Not just beer though, but brewing itself; growing up in Romsey, Hampshire, he would walk every day past the Whitbread brewery on his way to school, breathing in the unmistakable warm, sweet, damp aroma of boiling malt and hops. Being so close to the process and its delicious results bred a fascination into young David, which developed during his school years and ultimately saw him leave Romsey to study Chemistry and Food Science at the University of Reading. 

“Brewing was always up there among my career options, but in the end I went into academia, where it was still always the applied side that interested me; my PhD, here at Nottingham, looked at how viscosity impacts flavour perception. A lot of my research over the years has been around the perception of flavour and aroma, trying to understand what drives our perception of flavour, or liking of certain foods and beverages, and how that relates to the chemical composition that you can analyse. As an example, our group has shown how changing the hop aroma that is paired with a given base beer can change the perceived quality of bitterness for that beer. This is an example of an aroma-taste sensory interaction, with what we smell impacting on taste perception”. Another area of interest is optimising the flavour of the ‘no and low’ alcohol beer category. “Ethanol has a profound influence on the perception of alcoholic beverages, so when we seek to take it out flavour-matching becomes complex. We need to appreciate all of the senses humans use to perceive beer flavour so that we can compensate for or mask flavour differences relative to full-strength beers”. 

Professor David Cook

David was working on his post-doctorate studies when Nottingham decided to establish a brewing department, a situation that David modestly describes as “serendipity”. Professor Katherine Smart was appointed as the inaugural SABMiller Chair in Brewing Science, with David her partner in developing a brewing Masters course, initially to meet the educational requirements of SABMiller. The course was a great success and, in 2011, the department opened major brewing facilities on-campus, housed in a dedicated building. 

David himself has headed up the Masters course since its inception in 2006, working his way through the ranks to Associate Professor and then Professor in Brewing Science. Even as a self-described “academic brewer” he has clearly remained deeply connected to the applied, practical aspects of brewing beer, and the world his students will (most likely) be entering into.

If you never get your hands dirty, you risk missing a whole load of important considerations

He says: “When I first got my lectureship, one of the large breweries we were partnered with was good enough to take me in and give me some practical brewing experience in their pilot plant. I got to experience the practical challenges, understand physically what it's like to put a brew through, taking into account all the operational aspects. I think it was really important at that stage of my career that I wasn’t just focused on research but wanted to fully embrace the process that research is applied to.

This approach has clearly shaped the development of the programme at Nottingham, which has a reputation for matching academic and research excellence with real, hands-on brewing training. “We've always complemented academic knowledge by recruiting very experienced people from within the industry to bring that perspective and ensure that what we teach is focused around the needs of the modern industry. These are often people who have got to the stage of their career that they want to come and put something back, and I think they get a lot out of bringing up the next generation of brewers who are so passionate about the industry,” says David.

The University’s facilities match the practical focus of the course, allowing students to brew at three different scales, from experimental nano batches (basically homebrew-scale) right up to a state-of-the-art 10 hectolitre brewhouse, commissioned and staffed by AB InBev.

“Our strong links with the industry allow us to do what we do; it’s a real collaboration, because we’re providing the knowledge and skills the industry needs,” says David. “And we work with breweries right across the spectrum, from the biggest international names to regional and craft-scale breweries here in the UK. We’re also deeply involved in all of the UK brewing industry bodies, including the IBD – we take our position in the wider industry very seriously, because we ultimately understand how that benefits the department and our students. Brewing by nature is an applied science – as an academic discipline it only makes sense if it is firmly embedded in the industry it serves.”

As well as its focus on the practical aspects of the craft, another key differentiator for Nottingham is that the entire Masters programme is dedicated exclusively to brewing. For those whose sights are set firmly on beer, the highly specific, vocational ethos of Nottingham’s Masters course makes it very attractive. 

Nottingham graduates from are well sought in the industry, and we take a lot of interest in their employability

“The graduates from the Nottingham programme are well sought after in the industry, and we take a lot of interest in developing their employability – that’s a key priority for the programme. Our students spend the whole year learning about the technology and science of brewing, the basics of the engineering behind a brewery, and a lot of practical hands-on training. Naturally they still have much to learn in their first job, but we prepare them for that, making sure they’re competent, safe and equipped with up to date knowledge” says David.

Of course, having spent each year with a fresh cohort of ambitious fledgling brewers, David has had a front row seat for the seismic changes taking place in the industry over the past 20 years. He says diversification in all its forms has been the single most noticeable change, both in the makeup of each year’s intake, and in the brewing industry itself, as styles, ingredients and techniques that would once have been of purely academic interest have now become essential knowledge.

Students on the Brewing apprenticeship course at Nottingham enjoying a trip to The Wild Beer Co. with course leader Rod White (front right). PHOTO: University of Nottingham

“Nowadays maybe half of the students we take on each year ultimately want to start their own brewery – that certainly didn’t used to be the case,” David laughs. “It’s laudable, but we usually advise them go out and make their mistakes on somebody else's kit first! Do your time, then chase your big idea once you've refined it, because the market is mature now, so you need something that differentiates you, a good team behind you, and a clear business plan. It's no longer good enough to be the first in your region to open a brewery, brew one ale that tastes alright, and start selling it through your local pub. That’s not going to get you very far in today’s market.”

As true as this undoubtedly is, it does seem to run counter to the romantic cliché of the craft brewer, who fell in love with fermentation, gradually honed their skills through observation, trial and error, and eventually became a household name through sheer self-belief and determination. So, in today’s more mature market, with its sophisticated drinkers and cut-throat competition, has the trained, professional brewer forever supplanted the starry-eyed amateur?

Brewing knowledge just can’t and won’t stand still. The more you know, the more you can be flexible, adapt, improve

David replies: “Some good people come through that way, and there’s absolutely both art and science involved in becoming a top brewer. But of course, the scientific path is more focused, and will get you there much quicker. You might have got great at doing your particular thing, or learned on the job how to do things in one particular way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know how the brew is really working under the bonnet. So then if the market changes or you need to adapt to shifts in demand, or the quality of the raw ingredients, your beer is suddenly coming out wrong and you may not have the technical understanding to fix it.”

David identifies sustainability as another huge emerging priority for the industry. From a research perspective, he says, work is far more likely to attract funding if it comes tied to potential improvements in environmental performance. 

“There’s just so much happening in this area, touching on all the big areas where brewing is currently inefficient. For example, in malting we have one project looking at a novel processes for reducing water usage during steeping, and another using novel microwave technology to reduce energy usage during kilning, which currently accounts for 75-80% of all the energy used in malt production. We have a new Collaborative Training Partnership, jointly with the International Barley Hub up at Dundee, the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and about 20 companies right across the brewing supply chain. Over the next 7 years we’ll train 30 PhD students to help assure the future sustainable supply of UK malting barley for the brewing and distilling industries. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – I really could go on.

“The point is that brewing knowledge just can’t and won’t stand still. The more you know, the more you can be flexible, adapt, improve. I've been at some big brewing conferences, on panel discussions where, somewhat playfully, a brewery CEO will question why they need R&D. Don't we know everything there is to know about how to make beer? Of course, I'm in my element answering this sort of provocation! Engaging in active R&D is about staying ahead of the game, being able to innovate and set the market trends, as opposed to reacting to them. But currently, I don't think many will make that mistake, because the rate of change is obvious, and that makes it impossible to just defend a position; even well-established breweries need people who can keep them moving forward. And that’s hopefully were we come in.”

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