Preventing Stale Ale -- WPI Student Engineers Better Beer

Contact: WPI Media Relations, +1-508-831-5706

WORCESTER, Mass. -- April 19, 2005 -- It does not take a beer connoisseur to know when beer has gone bad, but it does take an engineer to prevent it from happening. Pamela S. Giasson, a chemical engineering major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), knows that firsthand. For her senior academic project, Giasson worked with a local craft brewery, Wachusett Brewing Company (WBC), to analyze the oxygen content of its packaged beer bottles in order to ensure the maximum quality in taste and freshness as the company looks to possibly expand its operation, while maintaining current customer satisfaction.

Early last summer, Giasson began her yearlong project when she was recruited by WBC founder and WPI graduate Kevin J. Buckler '89. Buckler, who started WBC in 1994 with two other WPI graduates (Peter L. Quinn '89 and Edward C. LaFortune III '90), challenged Giasson with an issue that all breweries face today: the impact of oxygen on packaged beer. At elevated levels, oxygen reacts to produce an undesirable stale taste. One significant potential source of oxygen comes from the ingress of air through the lining of the bottle caps after they are sealed to the bottles. Thus, Giasson needed to ensure that WBC's packaging methods were minimizing the amount of oxygen that would permeate the bottle cap seals.

To verify that the beer will maintain its freshness in transit and have the maximum possible shelf life, Giasson began her comprehensive testing on the packaging system at WBC. She measured the oxygen found in the headspace (the volume above the liquid in a sealed bottle), and the dissolved oxygen of packaged bottles of beer from samples throughout the bottling process. She also analyzed various types of bottle caps, including those from several bottle cap manufacturers from around the world, to ensure that WBC uses the most cost effective bottle cap.

Giasson confirmed that the current packaging system Wachusett uses is effective; however, the results of the oxygen content analysis from the current, more expensive bottle cap used by WBC are comparable to the results of the standard, less expensive bottle cap. These findings have given WBC a viable option to increase the company's profitability without sacrificing quality.

"Pamela has been phenomenal in helping establish the effectiveness of our bottling process, which coincides with our ideals of delivering quality products to our customers," says Buckler. "We were very concerned about preserving the freshness of our beer, but we didn't expect Pamela to find a way to save us money, too."

Academic projects like Giasson's are a key part of WPI's project-enriched undergraduate educational curriculum. They exemplify the university's long-held belief that undergraduate students learn best when they apply knowledge gained in the classroom to the solution of important problems in the real world. The WPI senior capstone project (or MQP) requires students to use what they have learned in their major discipline to solve a significant professional-level problem or master a research challenge. WPI projects are rigorous, academic exercises, and they count as a full term's academic credit. All projects have a faculty advisor, and student teams prepare a report and deliver a presentation of their findings.

Giasson is from Auburn, Maine. She will be graduating from WPI with a B.S. in chemical engineering in May. Subsequently, Giasson will work for General Electric in the Advanced Materials Operations Management Leadership Program.

About Wachusett Brewing Company

Wachusett Brewing Company founders Ned, Kevin, and Peter developed a significant "appreciation" for beer while attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the late '80s. The three opened the Wachusett Brewing Company in December 1994 after several happy years of pilot brewing, tasting and planning. Ned, Kevin, and Peter designed and built most of the equipment used to begin operations.

Since the company began, it has brewed over one-and-a-half million gallons of beer, and currently distributes its products to nearly 2,000 local establishments. Wachusett Ales are hand-crafted products produced by a unique brewing system. Every batch of beer is carefully created by head brewer Dave Howard. His attention to detail and genuine love of beer attribute to the excellence of its products.

WBC is a true Massachusetts craft brewery. Production has grown from 100 barrels/year in 1994 to 11,000 barrels/year in 2004.

To learn more about Wachusett Brewing Company, visit their Web site at www.wachusettbrew.com.