Bitter about Brexit?


The author about to do the hard work of taste testing his latest creation – “Still bitter about Brexit”.

As the “official” beer producer for EMBL Rome, I have a demanding job, one that I take nearly as seriously as my real job as Head of Genetic and Viral Engineering. I started producing homemade beer over 25 years ago. I have won many competitions and brewed my recipes in multiple brewpubs to be sold. Along the way, I have become an international beer judge and educator and am always happy to discuss beer with anyone. In fact, it is one of my favorite things to do! Hopefully, in the near future, I will hold some of my beer appreciation courses here at EMBL Rome. Believe it or not, you are all beer judges and I can prove it to you in my course!

Hop cones growing on the bine. Hops are the component of beer that imparts bitterness.

But what about the beer for EMBL Rome Lab Olympics? Last year (2017), for the inaugural Olympics, Jamie asked me to brew a beer. I decided a traditional English Bitter was the most appropriate beer to welcome Jamie Hackett, our a new group leader from England. As I knew many that work in Rome are used to drinking Peroni or Heineken, I purposely made the level of bitterness on the low end. It worked as the beer was very popular and 20 liters disappeared very fast. The bittering level of a beer is determined by many factors including the quantity of hops added, when in the brewing process they are added, and the type of hops. Hops have several components that add to flavor, aroma and bittering and for bittering the main contributor is the alpha-acids. Each hop crop is measured for their level of alpha-acids (even the same type of hops can vary in their alpha-acid levels a large amount from year to year) and this information is provided on the package.

An example of the label found on hops. These hops (‘luppolo’ in Italian) have 13.8% alpha-acid (“A.A.”).

Thus as a brewer, you can adjust how bitter each beer is and there are equations to help you determine this. The bitterness level is defined as IBUs, or “International Bittering Units”. You may have seen this measurement listed on some craft beers. For the style I made last year (and this), “Best bitter”, a beer can have from 25-40 IBUs. Last years version, “Bitter about Brexit” had 27 IBUs and was well received. I have been providing my handmade beer to multiple parties here at EMBL Rome and thus slowly, making each beer a bit more flavorful as palates slowly change. This years offering, “Still bitter about Brexit” came in slightly more bitter at 31 IBUs. Interestingly, many commented now it wasn’t very bitter, and certainly “not as bitter last year”. Of course as a home brewer, I do not have the instruments to accurately determine the exact level of bitterness and must rely on calculations, but it is likely that this years beer was in fact more bitter than last years, and that the audience judging the beers are getting a more refined taste. This is a normal process. Of course, the interplay with the malt, level of carbonation etc can all affect the perceived bitterness. That is part of the fun of brewing hand-crafted beers!

Next year, perhaps I will make an ESB, or “Extra Special Bitter” which can top out at 50 IBUs. Shall we call it, “Pissed about Brexit”?

Author: sawitzke

Head of Genetic and Viral Engineering Facility. Member of EMBL staff since June 2015. Expertise includes: genetic engineering, molecular biology, bacterial genetics, CRISPR and viral engineering and production. Longtime staff scientist with Don Court developing recombineering after postdoc with Stuart Austin at National Cancer Institute, USA. PhD with Frank Stahl at University of Oregon 1993. Avid home-brewer for 26 years. Beer judge since 2008 and currently the highest ranked BJCP beer judge in Europe.

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