Science and sensuality: Halifax professor evolving into local 'beer whisperer'

HALIFAX -- Andrew MacIntosh understands beer in ways few others can comprehend -- on the microscopic level, in its broader historical sweep, and in its sensual appeal.

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Though he's reluctant to use the term, he is on his way to becoming Nova Scotia's beer whisperer -- part academic, part business mentor -- using science to troubleshoot the challenges facing the province's "exploding" craft brewery industry.

The professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax is an expert on fermentation, and is also studying to become a cicerone -- the brewing equivalent of a sommelier.

MacIntosh is part of the new Canadian Institute of Fermentation Technology, established last summer to help grow the brewing, distilling and wine industries.

Supported by public and private funding, the institute offers scientific analysis of products using gear that no small business could afford. It also provides help with improving methods of making wine, beer and spirits.

So far, much of MacIntosh's work has been focused on craft beer.

"This is a very exciting area because it is absolutely booming, not only in the quality of craft brewing but also in the selection," he says.

Inside a laboratory stuffed with high-tech equipment, MacIntosh uses a microscope to spy on the tiny yeast cells that convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide -- the magical microbiology behind fermentation.

With great precision, MacIntosh is using his skills to instruct craft brewers on how to adjust recipes and improve production.

However, much of what the institute does is top secret -- for competitive reasons.

Among other things, MacIntosh and his colleagues are working on a new method for making sparkling wine. They are also trying to find a cost-effective means of measuring alcohol in distilled products, and shortening the lagering process.

As well, the labs have already been used to improve a Nova Scotia-made device called the Fizz Whiz, which gives craft brewers a high level of precision when adding carbonation.

"It's very fancy," says MacIntosh. "(The inventor) is looking to launch that across Canada."

The institute is an offshoot of the Canadian Fisheries Institute of Technology, a 30-year-old endeavour that continues to support the seafood and nutritional supplements industries.

"Unfortunately, fisheries industry research is heading downhill," says MacIntosh. "So we looked at the other industries that are up-and-coming in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes."

In the past decade, the number of craft breweries in the province has grown from less than 10 to more than 30.

Two years ago, Chris Reynolds became co-owner of Stillwell Bar in Halifax, one of the city's first watering holes devoted to local craft brews.

"It's definitely exploding here, like it is in most places in North America -- but things tend to happen a little later on the East Coast," he says. "So, we're enjoying the beginnings of it. It's a pretty young scene."

Amid the growing competition, craft brewers are turning to MacIntosh and his colleagues to perfect their suds.

"I'm a beer enthusiast and I really like the analytical side," says MacIntosh, an accomplished home brewer who prefers stout with a lot of caramel at this time of year. "Working with these companies has been quite rewarding."

And, yes, he's had to sample more than a few ales and lagers -- for research purposes.

The most unusual beer to enter his lab was an Alexander Keith's pale ale that was -- wait for it -- recovered from an unopened bottle that had been sitting on the bottom of Halifax harbour for more than a century.

Once the ancient brew was deemed safe to drink, he took a sip from a test tube and discerned an "odd, meaty flavour," the acrid smell of a burnt barrel and some "tree fruit notes."

He has tried other surprising brews, including a local ale infused with beets.

"It wasn't as red as you might think, but it had a lot of earthy tones."

As for the best local beer he's ever tried, MacIntosh's eyes widen as he recalls Unobtanium, brewed by Boxing Rock in Shelburne, N.S.

"It was so-named because they could not obtain certain hops any more," he says. "Unfortunately, some of these beers disappear, never to be obtained again."

Boxing Rock, which opened in 2013, described its creation as a full bodied, "intrepid" amber ale that was "mahogany-walnut in colour, with a malty rich backbone supporting some unexpected hop flavours."

Despite the growing workload at the institute and its initial successes, MacIntosh says he won't embrace the mantle of beer whisperer -- for now.

"I can't claim that title yet," he says with modesty. "That is a tall order."


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