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New ideas brewing in beer industry

By Julie Clothier for CNN
German drinkers could soon be having their beer brewed by new methods.
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AUGSBURG, Germany (CNN) -- After 30 years of hard work and trial and error, brewmaster Axel Heiliger says he has come up with a way to save the beer industry time and money.

The 64-year-old, who comes from a brewing family, has developed a novel technique that fuses yeast to the sides of specially created ceramic-lined cylinders during the brewing process.

Heiliger designed the first prototype in 1997. Now, after rigorous industry testing, German company Scheiblich Brewing Company is mass-producing Heiliger's invention, known as the Aubras fermenting system.

Fermentation of beer traditionally involves placing wort -- the sweet malt liquid before it is fermented and turned into beer -- into a vessel.

Yeast is then added, converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. The fermentation process takes about 10 days.

But Heiliger, who began thinking about alternative beer-making techniques when he started studying brewing in 1964, says this process is traditionally an uncontrolled one in which the yeast "free floats."

"You throw the yeast into the vessel and say, 'Now go and work. I have prepared some food for you and it is nice and sugary, so go and do your thing'," he says.

His own process allows the yeast to work quicker and involves first fixing the yeast to the ceramic lining of a stainless steel cylinder.

The yeast fuses itself to the surface and feeds the wort at an increased rate, meaning the fermentation process takes only a few hours.

Any normal brewer's yeast can be used in his process but the lifespan of the yeast is much longer than in traditional processing, where yeast degenerates after three brews and starts to affect the quality of the beer, says Heiliger.

"We tested it and after a year the yeast was still good. The beer still tasted fine. We wouldn't normally keep the same yeast for that period of time but it shows that you can do without cleaning for, say, six months," he says.

"My system is closed so once you put the yeast in, it stays there. You do not need to touch it. The more you touch the yeast, the greater risk of getting an infection which is deadly in a brewery."

Heiliger says that his device takes up about 30 square meters, whereas traditional systems can be up to 300 square meters in size.

"Back when I first studied brewing, I thought, there must be a better way so I set to work to find one," says Heiliger, who wants production of his invention to remain in Germany.

"We have proved that it's not just words we are talking. We can produce good beer as well."

He believes the invention will be useful for boutique breweries.

"Although the industry of small breweries is well established, my principle works using a 10th of the floor space and is quicker so I am sure it will generate a lot of interest."

He hopes bigger, more established breweries will also be interested, particularly in the summertime, when beer drinking is at its most popular in Germany.

Professor Graham Stewart, a brewing expert at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and the head of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, told CNN that Heiliger's concept was not entirely new.

The "wort tank" takes the hopped wort from the brewing unit

He says it is a type of "continuous fermentation," which has been used for about 50 years in wine-making and 15 years in beer-making.

Continuous fermentation methods see the yeast "immobilized," speeding up the process significantly.

Stewart says Heiliger's concept differs in its small size and the way the cylinders are lined with ceramics, and believes the idea could work well on a small scale.

"To say it's not completely new is untrue. He has taken an old concept and has slightly adapted it."

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