The Devil is in the Details Virginia's largest craft brewer, Devils Backbone Brewing Co., serves students of analytical chemistry hands-on learning, grain to glass.
“Chemistry is not just some esoteric subject you read about in books. Chemistry is cool.”
~ Matt Tuchler, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Water, malt, hops, yeast: This short list of raw ingredients, the building blocks of most beer, belies the technical complexity of the brewing process. At Devils Backbone’s Outpost Taproom & Kitchen, located just a short drive from W&L down Virginia 11, each beer has a unique recipe and multi-step brewing process. Any infinitesimal deviation of temperature, time or volume can result in product and profit lost. As Matt Tuchler, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at W&L, explains: “The flavor of a Vienna Lager is more than just hops and barley. There is a lot of science that goes on behind the scenes.”
Tuchler hopes to instill in his students a deeper appreciation of this behind-the-scenes science through a learning partnership with Devils Backbone, now in its third year. His goal is to engage his students in “truly experiential learning” — to help them realize that “chemistry is not just some esoteric subject you read about in books. Chemistry is cool!”
An important part of his analytical chemistry (Chem 211) course is a two-and-a-half-hour “grain-to-glass” tour led by Coey Jenkins, the Outpost’s quality manager. “There are so many different brands and beers throughout the world,” Jenkins told Tuchler’s students in late January, as he handed out blue vests and safety goggles to wear. “It’s your water, select ingredients, and your brewhouse engineering that make your beer your beer.”
Jenkins led Tuchler’s group through the Outpost’s 120-barrel Rolec brewing system, two analytical laboratories, cellar, and bottling and canning lines. Surrounded by 20 acres of lush farmland and framed by a panorama of the Blue Ridge, it’s not surprising the Outpost is a popular destination for tourists to stop in for a pint — but few are afforded this level of access. Jenkins explained the role of each gleaming kettle and piece of equipment as the group moved from building to building. In the brewhouse, he pointed students to flat screens showing elaborate graphs and tables, monitoring the intricacies of each step in real time. In the lab, he introduced them to a colleague as he scribbled a recent test result on a whiteboard.
“Every beer produced is tested biologically at least at nine different checkpoints,” Jenkins said. “My new guys learn about the biology of beer first, then the sensory aspects, then the chemistry.”
Abby West ’21, a biochemistry major, felt her eyes were opened to new career possibilities through the course. Working with the brewery “created a sense of purpose to the tests and things we are running in lab,” she said, “like, ‘Oh, this is why I’m learning what I’m learning.’”
“We’d read about the whole process, we’d learned about it, but it was just cool to see the scale of what is going on,” added Ben Peeples ’21, a chemistry and philosophy double major. “It’s also cool to see the details of that kind of production, to see just how accurate everything has to be.” Peeples’ group was testing samples of Devils Backbone’s beer to confirm ethanol content. Tuchler shares his classes’ data with Devils Backbone, which makes it a win-win exchange.
“You’ve got a lot of big brains up at W&L,” said Jenkins with a laugh. “When we need any sort of complex analytical testing, like gas chromatography, we call up Matt at W&L.”
That Tuchler’s students are afforded such access to the inner workings of Virginia’s largest and most decorated craft brewer, which was purchased in 2012 by Anheuser-Busch, is “just unbelievable,” said Tuchler, noting how gracious Jenkins and his team have been with their support. Then again, Lexington’s small size affords big opportunities for the intellectually curious. “Everyone here is maybe three degrees of separation from everyone else,” said Tuchler, adding that when he conceived of the course, a phone call to a friend, who was also a friend of the brewery’s founder, was all it took to get things started.
“The things you can do in Lexington are amazing,” he said. “The opportunities here you won’t find anywhere else.”