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Calgary’s Next Economy – Raft Beer Labs bringing big science to small Calgary brewers

You may have already heard of Calgary’s Raft Beer Labs, with the recent pivot of local craft brewers to the production of hand sanitizer.

It’s sort of the MO for Euan Thomson, founder of Raft Beer Labs – to provide big brewing science to small breweries. Though, he didn’t necessarily have coronavirus response in mind at the time.

Thomson, who has a research lab background, worked in microbiology for years. He graduated from the University of Alberta with his PhD, and he was studying cystic fibrosis and infections in those patients. That got him into how oxygen plays a role in infection outcomes and the relationship between microbes and oxygen concentrations in fermentation.

He parlayed that knowledge into work at breweries and distilleries on Canada’s west coast. Thomson put together a wealth of experience in malting and distilling and integrated the lab components into quality management for different products.

“When I moved out here (Alberta) at the end of 2019, the idea was to launch Raft to help these really small breweries,” said Thomson.

“The idea was to get them some support that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access, to bring some of the sort of big brain science into the small breweries and help them manage their quality and make sure the product on the shelf is going to look really good for the consumer when they pick it up.”

The Science of brewing craft beer

When he worked at Phillips Brewing and Malting, Thomson said he regularly produced reports on the highest risk areas in the brewery – relative to quality control. He’d look at microbiological and sanitation areas – bacterial counts to the water’s pH level – during the brewing process.

Thomsom said that once you start to develop a real palate for beer, and then you’re presented with data, you start to see the impact of the smallest changes.

“Comparing the flavors that you get out of beer, back to the analytical numbers that you have in front of you, the chemistry, microbiology, you really start to draw connections between why something tastes the way it does,” he said.

“You can almost pinpoint the exact place where that went wrong.”

If you’re in tune with the raw materials and you have the raw analytical data, you can make the necessary changes to improve the consistency and quality of the product, Thomson said.

Going beyond beer

Thomson said craft beer is one place to apply the concept of microbiology and the impact it has on quality.

As he builds Raft Beer Labs platform out, he sees its application for other markets, including cold brewed coffee.

Thomson said when he talks to cold brew coffee producers in places like California, they have people swapping can the on shelves every two weeks.

“Cold coffee producers have the same sort of bacterial issues that brewers have,” he said.

Thomson said that anywhere where you have fermentation as a part of production is an area where you can apply science to improving productivity and quality. Even the cider industry.

“I was really keen to get some testing going and really get a grip on what sorts of microbiological phenomena are going on,” he said.

Business + microbiology

Thomson said the Junction program with Platform put into perspective the need to listen to the problems potential clients have, over telling the types of problems he expects them to have.

He wanted to get a real feel for the problems they’re facing and where he might be able to help them.

Throw in the financial forecasting, tracking key performance indictors and dealing with clients and it’s a springboard to take his business forward.

“It doesn’t matter how much microbiological education you have, there’s no way you’re going to be able to practice if you don’t understand those fundamentals in finances and those sorts of things.