Published on July 12th, 2016 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Students earn their university brews
One of the North East’s most unusual microbreweries has set its bar high, as Alastair Gilmour discovers
“Sustainability” is the word you’ll hear most often at one of the North East’s most unusual microbreweries. It’s the guiding principle of Stu Brew, a 2.5-barrel plant tucked away in what can only be described as an out-house at Newcastle University.
It is the first and so far only student-run brewery in Europe; it’s a social enterprise; it’s students who develop recipes, brew the beer and eventually sell the stuff, overseen by project coordinators who ensure their academic studies run smoothly alongside brewing tasks. They are completely absorbed in it – in any case, have you ever met a student who does not have a huge interest in beer?
Stu Brew was set up as a Student Community Action Newcastle (SCAN) scheme in 2013, which has been supported to establish sustainability projects as a part of the National Union of Students (NUS) Student Green Fund. All sales profits are reinvested into training and development and the long-term sustainability of the enterprise.
The project is part of Newcastle University’s school of chemical engineering and advanced materials and involves students in academic studies, including business, label design, sourcing raw ingredients, online promotion and bottling.
“They have conducted their own market research, secured trademarks and designed the labels themselves,” says Red Kellie, SCAN project coordinator. “There are so many different angles to it. It’s also about sustainability, giving students as much experience as possible while understanding the input of chemicals and waste management.”
Significant funding from the Institute for Sustainability has allowed the Stu Brew research team to take part in a number of studies looking at how to dispose and make best use of spent grains, hops and brewer’s yeast sustainably. Outcomes from the project will benefit regional microbreweries who have expressed great interest in the research. Stu Brew closely monitors energy and water usage, and has a very energy efficient hot water and cooling system which re-uses hot water. Creating an animal feed from spent barley grains and yeast, such as for pigs, provides a sustainable solution to the waste issue, and avoids any associated environmental impacts with disposal.
In collaboration with researchers at the University of Kassel in Germany, the team are to test a prototype dryer they’ve developed and optimise it for brewery wastes.
Researchers will also look into the possibility of using waste products from the brewery for anaerobic digestion and gasification. Both the hops and the grains could be used in an anaerobic digester such as the one at Cockle Park Farm, one of two farms based at Newcastle University.
The Stu Brew students are a resourceful lot, building the Stu Brew reputation on innovation. A demi-john of pink liquid sitting on the brewery copper has been drawn off a new brew; it’s an experimental beer infused with 25 kilos of rhubarb. Beside it is a ginger beer with a heady, spicy pungency.
A collaboration with Newcastle microbrewery Northern Alchemy and Ugly Duckling (an industrial waste organisation) produced Breakfast Juice Pale Ale (4.7% abv) with the batch containing more than 100 grapefruits.
More “ordinary” beers have also been a hit in the Students Union bar – Stu Brew’s first beer, OverDraught IPA (5.6% abv), was an instant, sell-out success. Rye Vision Break (5.3% abv) is a dark copper-hued dry-hopped rye ale with fruit and spice prominent throughout, while Red Brick (4.8% abv) is a beautifully balaned nutty malt and floral hop premium bitter.
The positive response has led the beer to be offered at various venues across the campus and externally at the neighbouring Crow’s Nest and Trent House pubs and at Bierrex in the city.
Course administrator Chris O’Malley (by day a lecturer in chemical engineering and advanced materials) says: “Steve Lynch, the manager at The Crow’s Nest has been extremely supportive, willingly putting on our beers and feeding back comments and constructive criticism. He’s gone above and beyond cooperation.
“We champion the idea that the modern chemical engineer has to consider best practice in sustainability. Stu Brew is a ‘living lab’ but one where students learn about how sustainability can be applied to industry.
“If we can convince professionals in the brewing industry of one or two things they could change which would have less of an impact on the environment, that’s what a university should be doing clearly.”
As Red Kellie says, there are all sorts of angles to Stu Brew. In 2014, it was part of an award-winning garden exhibited at the Chelsea Flower Show, highlighting a national Students Eats project which encourages students to grow their own produce and take on allotments.
And although the Stu Brew project isn’t aimed primarily at placing graduates in the brewing industry, after the first 12 months of operation, four students progressed to jobs in Heineken and at BrewDog in Aberdeen.
Linguistics student Michael Oates uses his coursework to great effect: “It’s a match made in heaven. Not everybody at age 19 can pop into a brewery and make beer, plus when you make your own stuff you get very passionate about it.”