Beer Boffins: Nikolaj Metz Jansen
From Warpigs to brewing analytics
Saturday 17 December 2022
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Ones to Watch
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From the coalface at legendary Copenhagen brewpub Warpigs, to in-house brewer at leading analytic instruments company FOSS, Nikolaj Metz Jansen’s career path has certainly been eventful, but also tells us a great deal about the growing importance of the lab in any serious craft brewery.
“I started drinking craft beers with some friends when we were only 16, and I think that excited us that these beers tasted different,” says Nikolaj. “So that interest in flavour was definitely the starting point. Then when I reached an age where I had to choose an academic degree, I happened to see in a newspaper article that you could study to become a master brewer. So I was like, ‘if I'm gonna spend five years in academia, I might as well study something fun?’
“I knew I wanted to study science, but felt very strongly that I wanted to focus on something that had a very practical application. And in my opinion, people find it quite easy to relate to the process behind beer and brewing; they might not know exactly what has happened to make this beer taste this way, but it’s a very tangible product of an applied science, and that really appealed to me.”
Interestingly, Nikolaj wasn’t 100% fixed on his education leading to a role at a brewery though, and his ambitions have constantly shifted. Nonetheless, he excelled in his course, and scored a student brewing position in Copenhagen’s famous Warpigs brewpub. He was initially hired by brewmaster Lan-Xin Foo, but stayed on when Philipp Heist took over the role.
He says: “It was a fantastic education to work with both brewers, partly because they came from such different brewing backgrounds. Certainly working with Phillipp was different to anything I’d seen before, because he’s German educated and taught me a lot about that traditional lager approach that has seen such a resurgence in craft brewing.
“We were just to start about to ramp up brewing again after the winter season at the start of 2020, and then COVID hit and everyone except for the head brewer basically got set home on governmental grants. So I got paid to sit on my sofa, which was incredibly boring.”
Nikolaj did not languish for long though, as a university friend in the food science programme put him in touch with FOSS, which was urgently looking for a good technical brewer to work in-house.
“They were looking for someone to produce samples for testing their instruments and also to evaluate their features from a very practical, brewery floor point of view. So my job at the beginning, for the first three months or so, was basically trying to break the instrument – feeding it the most difficult samples I could brew, deliberately trying to trip it us and find situations where it wouldn’t do the job,” continues Nikolaj.
The classic tests for any kind of brewing analytic devices include beers heavy in maltodextrin – a supposedly unfermentable sugar – pastry stouts with unusual adjuncts and really hazy IPAs, which can throw readings by being too opaque.
People find it quite easy to relate to the process behind beer and brewing
“I spent quite a lot of time on a Facebook group call Milk the Forklift, which is mostly a lot of brewers making jokes about how they fix things with duck tape – just regular brewery soap opera – so they had a lot of suggestions. I also used other brewers in my network, who were really helpful providing samples, particularly of the weirder stuff, and we’d give them full, detailed analysis of their beer in return.”
But, in one of those very rare instances where everyone is happy that a new recruit is unable to do the thing they’ve been hired to do, FOSS’s instrument survived Nikolaj’s most extreme craft brewing antics; a huge internal benchmark, which gave the company a lot of confidence taking it to market.
The instrument itself, the BeerFoss FT Go, marks the company’s return to the brewing industry, and is pitched at craft brewers mid-size and above, as a cost-effective and ultimately fool-proof means of getting accurate data right through the brewing process, from wort to finished beer. It draws on the company’s huge experience in other industries, working with liquids including wine, oil and even milk.
“Our experience in the dairy industry was actually really important in developing this instrument, because milk is incredibly hazy,” says Nikolaj. “So if we already know a technology can analyse milk, then it becomes a good candidate for the beer industry, because a lot of technologies really struggle with very hazy beers.”
Most of FOSS’s instruments, including BeerFoss, use a technology call vibrational spectroscopy. In layman’s terms, this involves shining a laser at a sample, and either measuring the fragment that is reflected back, or the fragment that is not absorbed and reaches the other side. Specifically, BeerFoss uses a laser in the mid-infrared spectrum, which is not visible to the human eye, but can reveal the presence and concentration of alcohol, protein, sugars and a host of other components vital to the brewing process.
Nikolaj says: “What you end up with is an incredibly accurate fingerprint of the liquid, with peaks corresponding to all these different things, so for example you can say precisely the ABV of a beer. The important thing is these are much more precise than the old ways of measuring these things, and the readings aren’t distorted by dissolved gas, sugar, turbidity, changes in density or any of the usual problems.
“From a very practical point of view, here we have a lot of breweries that export to Sweden for example, where they have some really, really strict laws around alcoholic strength, so this was something that was important to a lot of our Swedish customers. Then some of the larger breweries use it for blending, so say their target was 4.5% ABV, but it was actually coming out at 4.7% alcohol, they can blend in a bit of water get a bit more beer. It could also be the other way around.”
The instrument itself, the BeerFoss FT Go, marks the company’s return to the brewing industry
Visiting as many breweries as we do, it’s always interesting to see who is investing in this kind of kit and who isn’t. Or, to put it another way: at what point in a brewery’s journey does it become more economic to make a relatively modest investment in ensuring your brewing is consistent and efficient rather than, say putting that money toward more tank space?
“A lot of the time, that push usually comes from people. There's always so much going on in a brewery, right, so it's not like brewers necessarily have the time to sit down and think about buying such a piece of equipment. So a lot of our sales come from people who’ve met us at a conference, or that have heard some word of mouth about us. It’s one of those things that you might not realise you need until you’ve used it. Then people use our instrument and are very excited about it, and tell someone else.”
FOSS has always been a very research-focused business, and Nikolaj assures me there are many more exciting brewery-specific products and technologies now in the works (which, obviously, he can’t talk about).
“It’s a market we are very interested in, and personally I love to be creative in these kinds of spaces and pick up new things that we can work on,” says Nikolaj. “What I can tell you is that everything we’re developing starts with the needs of breweries. The fact that I’m on staff here, and that we’re working so closely with the industry reflects the fact that FOSS really understands the day-to-day challenges these instruments come up against. The real value of these instruments is that they’re simple to use and you can completely trust the results, whatever you throw at them – without that, they’d be worthless.”
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