JOSEPH Spearot sure went to a helluva lot of trouble just to drink beer on Arcadia University’s dry campus.
Undergrads might be expected to dodge vigilant RAs at the school’s historic Grey Towers Castle residence hall by simply stuffing a suitcase with cans of Natty Light.
Spearot? He built an entire brewhouse in his organic chemistry classroom, then spent months to obtain permission to “test” his experimental ale on human subjects.
It was all part of the chemistry/biology major’s unique senior project that also took him to a winery in Australia, the quality-assurance laboratory at Yards Brewery and – next month – a prestigious national brewing conference in Chicago.
How was Spearot’s ale? Let’s just say the diploma he’ll be handed at tomorrow’s commencement at the Glenside university ought to be sealed with a beer stain.
For, as the graduate conceded, “Logistically, it was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.”
Spearot, who grew up in Jeffersonville, Montgomery County, caught the brewing bug as an 18-year-old sophomore when he was on the fence about pursuing a career in forensics. A chance to study abroad, at an organic winery in Mudgee, Australia, changed that path.
“Back home, I wasn’t anywhere near drinking age,” he said. But Australia gets them started early, so the internship gave him an opportunity to (legally) taste what he was studying.
The stint lasted just seven weeks, but the work, along with conversations with the winery’s owner, persuaded him to concentrate on the marvels of fermentation.
“I really didn’t know my passion until Australia,” Spearot said.
That led to an internship at Yards, where he worked in the Northern Liberties brewery lab with quality-assurance director Frank Winslow.
It was Winslow who gave Spearot the idea for his senior Capstone Project – an intense, creative, yearlong study within the student’s major.
Typically, these in-depth projects carry titles like “The Effects of Gluten Proteins and Ketones in Mice Models with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
Spearot’s was no less wonky: “Effect of the Early Pitching Method on Beer Composition During the Brewing Process.” It stems from a proposal that Winslow had read from researchers at Japan’s Asahi Brewery, suggesting a new method of inoculating beer with yeast to initiate fermentation.
“Joe latched on to the project and ran with it,” Winslow said.
But first he had to persuade the school – founded by Methodists as Beaver Female Seminary – to allow him to set up shop and (gasp!) serve beer to volunteer test subjects.
It took four months for the school’s institutional review board to approve his request.
“Because humans were involved, I had to prove that giving them beer was ethical,” Spearot said. “So, I had to show that all the test subjects would be of age, no one would get drunk and that I would be analyzing the results.”
His chemistry professor, Linda Mascavage (right, above), gave him the go-ahead to set up the brewhouse in her lab. (“Which was great, because she doesn’t even like beer,” Spearot said.)
And Spearot began working on his recipe.
“It was a simple pale ale, made with Citra hops,” he said. “I wanted to brew something drinkable. Plus, I wanted something me and my roommates could drink afterwards.”
He ran off three trials of about 10 gallons each, with a variety of pitching methods in which the beer was exposed to yeast at different times.
About 75 Arcadia faculty, staff and students tasted the ale and registered their comments. And Spearot subjected samples to gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, a high-tech method of identifying microscopic ingredients.
The study’s results confirmed the Asahi proposal. The new pitching method reduced the amount of harsh fusel alcohol (suspected to be the cause of common hangovers) and increased the amount of isoamyl acetate, the chemical compound that gives beer (especially German hefeweizen) its banana flavor.
Winslow said that he was so impressed by young Spearot’s work, Yards has invited him back for another stint this summer.
Others have noticed his work, too. In June, he’ll present his findings at the annual conference of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas. In September, he’ll enter the master of food science program at Drexel University.
The fermentation project alone likely guaranteed Spearot a passing grade, but the senior sealed the deal by gifting his professors with a bottle of his new creation, Punxsutawney Fudge Porter. It’s based on a family fudge recipe that goes back to the days when his grandfather served as one of the groundhog judges out at Gobbler’s Knob.
Said Spearot: “The secret ingredient is groundhog milk.”
Hmm . . . on second thought, somebody better check this guy’s biology grades.
Typically, beer wort is inoculated with yeast through a method known as “uniform pitching,” in which the yeast is added in equal measures as the fermentation vessel fills. Spearot’s study examined a pitching method in which three-quarters of the yeast was added initially, with the remainder added in a final dose.
The study examined how the pitching method affects the production of fusel (harsh) alcohol and certain esters.
Spearot’s tests found that the new method produced significantly lower levels of isoamyl alcohol, one of the major fusel alcohols. Through gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis, he discovered the new method also increased the levels of isoamyl acetate, ethel acetate and ethyl butereate – all esters that produce important flavors in ale.
Finally, the majority of faculty, staff and students who participated in his taste test agreed the new pitching method increased the flavor of esters in samples.