Beer Boffins: Steven Vincent
Richard Croasdale chats with Steven Vincent, the Sales Manager Measurement Products at Anton Paar UK & Ireland
Saturday 24 September 2022
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From a master locksmith in Austria, to one of the world’s most respected developers of brewing measurement equipment, Anton Paar’s 100-year journey has seen some big changes.
While Anton himself was a highly respected locksmith, it was his daughter – the first female locksmith in that region of Austria, whose talent for highly intricate metalwork took her beyond her father’s domain – who really set the business on its long-term path. Starting with a commission to create an x-ray scattering camera for an Austrian university, the move into other scientific instruments was quite natural and, before long, Anton Paar was at the forefront of devices to measure the density of liquids.
For anyone with a smattering of brewing knowledge, this will immediately ring bells, as liquid density measurement is the primary way of determining how much sugar is present in wort, tracking the progress of fermentation and, ultimately, gauging the alcohol content of the finished beer. Launched in 1967, Anton Paar’s oscillating u-tube density meter offered brewers far greater accuracy and convenience than a traditional hydrometer, and its fundamental principles are still widely used today.
Steven Vincent of the company’s Measurement Products division says: “Particularly if you’re a craft brewery that's making lots of different types of beers and lagers, you’re likely to have a wide range of densities to measure. Using hydrometers, you'd need maybe a set of three or four or five to cover that range, whereas we can cover the full spread in the same instrument. It’s also digital, so there’s no reading error, no operator error, you can take a sample directly out of the tank and get an instant reading from a handheld device. It was a game-changer, really.”
Even for devices still based on the original oscillating u-tube design, the technology has moved on tremendously, particularly in terms of portability, accuracy and fool-proof use.
“We now have instruments that measure density accurately to six decimal places, which was certainly not the case initially,” continues Steven. “Another big development has been viscosity correction; imagine the sample tube is oscillating very fast, and if you have a really viscous sample inside, it can't keep up with the vibrations, so you get some shear effects that interfere with an accurate reading. We were able to analyse the signal, the frequency, the oscillation, and learn how to correct for viscosity error.
We now have instruments that measure density accurately to six decimal places, which was certainly not the case initially
“Then in 2018, we launched a totally new patented technique for evaluating the oscillation frequency, which has taken accuracy, speed and the detection of errors to another level. So, for example, if there's an air bubble in the sample – if the brewer hasn’t degassed it properly, perhaps – then the device can detect that and issue a warning. Even if the bubbles are so small that you can’t see them with the naked eye, it’ll detect them and give you confidence that the reading you’re getting is actually accurate.”
Oscillating u-tube meters aren’t the only game in town though, and for larger breweries, looking for pinpoint consistency from brew to brew, new technologies can offer even more detail. One weakness with density-based meters is that they can’t give a 100% accurate reading on the final ABV. This is because, even once fermentation has finished, a quantity of residual sugar will be left in solution; as sugar increases the density of the sample, and alcohol (ethanol) decreases it, the two will act against each other and give a distorted reading of the final alcohol content.
Anton Paar’s next major innovation tackled this challenge by harnessing near infrared spectrometry, creating devices that basically shine a light through the sample in a small cell, and measure its absorbance at a particular wavelength that's specific to ethanol.
“Irrespective of what else is in the sample, however much sugar is in there or other things, this infrared analytical instrument will measure the absorbance at wavelength, do the calculations internally and record that as alcohol concentration accurate to within 0.01%,” says Steven.
These very high-end systems tend to be used by the larger brewers, as the cost is quite a lot higher than a handheld density metre, or even a benchtop density metre. However, Anton Paar has always put a significant chunk of its profits back into R&D, and has adapted the same fundamental technology into a format that is more suited and accessible to craft brewing businesses.
Quite a lot of smaller craft breweries have been buying those over the past four or five years, to get better control of their process
“We launched an instrument called the Alex 500 around six years ago, which is a combination of a density metre and a near infrared cell; it’s almost like a cut down version of the full system. It has some limitations in terms of the sample types it can process, for example it doesn't like really cloudy beers quite so much, so you have to remove some of that turbidity from a sample before you analyse it, but that’s not hard to do.
“Quite a lot of smaller craft breweries have been buying those over the past four or five years, to get better control of their process. It will do all the things the density metre will do, in terms of plotting the fermentation curve, giving you a measurement of extract and those other parameters, and because it's got the infrared it also gives you the ABV in the finished product.”
One trend that Steven says has pushed more craft breweries toward prioritising accurate measurement is the move toward small-pack (bottles and cans). This has been accelerated both by lockdown and the growth of supermarkets’ craft selections. Suddenly, CO2 isn’t the only gas coming under scrutiny, and brewers are more observant than ever of the levels of dissolved oxygen in their beers. Oxygen, while essential for yeast to thrive during fermentation, is disastrous in packaged beer, causing unpleasant off flavours and – in high enough concentrations – even corrosion of the packaging.
Steven says: “This really plays into the other big area of expertise we’ve developed, which is in gas measurement. So we have another instrument that we use, again patented, to accurately measure the concentration and type of dissolved gas in every sample, especially carbon dioxide but also oxygen. These instruments are designed to take beer straight from a bright tank, a keg, or even pierce a can to get a completely pure sample. Larger breweries even incorporate meters in-line, so the gas levels of their beer can be monitored for problems in real time.”
As well as its own in-house 700-litre brewery (“the most monitored small brewery in the world”) which Anton Paar uses to develop and test its equipment, it also works hand-in-hand with breweries at every level of the industry, to directly address real-world challenges.
“We started off in a craft environment ourselves, as locksmiths, so we like to see what we do as craft for craft. We try to provide solutions that have the functionality and price point to suit everyone from the very largest multinationals, through medium craft brewers right down to the consumer hobbyist in their garage. We’re probably a little bit obsessive about it, but in a good way.”
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