America has over 4,000 breweries. They make all sorts of different beers, but the fundamental science behind all that brewing is mostly the same. So while many brewers tinker with hops and yeast and barrel-aging and dry-hopping, a group of scientists in Italy set out to see if they could change the actual physical process of brewing.
Led by Lorenzo Albanese of the Institute of Biometeorology in Florence, a team of researchers recently submitted a paper that claims they’ve developed “a completely new brewing equipment and process” that can provide “significant advantages in terms of lowered capital cost, reduced production time, enhanced energy and production efficiency, food safety, while preserving beer organoleptic qualities.” This new process is possible thanks to a natural physical phenomenon known as cavitation.
If you’ve never heard of cavitation, don’t be alarmed. Unless you work in engineering or some other technical field, it’s probably never come up before. It’s definitely not a page you accidentally skimmed over in your homebrewing handbook. According to MIT Technology Review, cavitation is “the formation of small bubbles of vapor within a liquid and their subsequent collapse,” later described as “an extraordinary process” that can “dramatically change the physical and chemical environment in water.”
Needless to say, water is a very important ingredient in beer, so being able to tinker with its properties creates a number of opportunities. For one, Albanese and his team claim that with cavitation there is no longer a need to mill grain before brewing. Right now brewers grind grain before brewing to increase the surface area and pull more sugars out of it. But with cavitation, the water will pulverize the grain itself down to about 100 micrometers according to Albanese. The enhanced water will also remove sugars more efficiently from the grain, eliminating the need to sparge or run hot water over the grain to extract more sugar. All this uses less energy.
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If you don’t brew or obsessively read about brewing techniques (which, if you don’t brew, why are you doing that? That’s weird) the idea is this: the brewing process becomes more environmentally friendly, but the beer still supposedly tastes the same.
As the MIT Technology Review points out, all this high-tech new equipment wouldn’t necessarily be cheap, meaning the practical applications of utilizing cavitation for brewing are still to be seen. But as the authors remind us, “beer is the worldwide most widely consumed alcoholic beverage;” if there’s a more efficient way to make it, that could benefit a lot of people.