Instead of whipping up another five-gallon batch, this "lazy" Ph.D. found a much smaller solution.
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A hand holding a single grain of barley
Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

Plenty of homebrewers can relate: The most common batch size for making beer is five gallons, but the resulting two cases' worth of beer isn't always easy to drink through—especially if you're doing a lot of brewing. The beer starts piling up.

A self-described "beer scientist" at the University of Queensland in Australia was confronted with a somewhat similar problem: Ph.D. student Edward Kerr had already brewed one of these 23-liter batches for an experiment he was conducting when he realized he may have missed an important factor.

"I was looking at barley protein changes during the mashing stage of beer brewing, when one of the paper's reviewers asked if the changes were caused by temperature or time spent mashing the barley," he stated. "It was a good question, but to find out I'd need to brew all over again, with an instrument that would hold at least 23 liters of brew, including five kilograms of malt for each brew—it would have taken another three months."

Admitting that he was "feeling a little lazy," Kerr set out to see if he could redo his experiment "on a much smaller scale." What he landed on was potentially the smallest scale imaginable. "The result was surprising," he continued. "I found that I could replicate the beer brewing process using only a single barley seed in a 1.5 milliliter tube."

So why hadn't researchers realized that such small scales could be used before? Kerr suggests that part of the reason is that "it has always been thought that testing how barley varieties perform in brewing had to be done at a similar scale to actual beer production." However, he explains that there's a very practical reason as well: "When breweries are trying out a new beer recipe they also want to make enough of it to be able to easily test it by drinking."

Kerr's supervisor—Benjamin Schulz, an associate professor—offered up a similar quip, "While 1.5 milliliters is definitely more convenient, quicker and cheaper, it's a little small for a refreshing after-work beer." For the record, 1.5 milliliters is about 0.05 ounces—or 1/315th of a pint of beer.

Still, the ramifications could be huge for scientists looking to develop new barley varieties. "Barley breeding focuses on increasing productivity and resistance to stresses such as heat and disease, but doesn't take into account the quality of the barley until late in the process," Schulz explained. "And that's a pretty challenging thing to test for, simply because of the scale previously required. Now that we only need a tiny amount of malted barley, we can quickly and easily ensure new varieties are of high quality."

And though brewing 1/20th of an ounce of beer at a time might not be helpful for judging taste, Schultz suggests drinkers could still potentially end up with some new beers due to their findings since brewers could take more risks at smaller scales. "This could encourage breweries to be adventurous with their brewing conditions and may very well lead to new styles of beer," he said.