PBL Brewing Laboratory was established in 1956, when 18 Finnish breweries, 4 malting plants and Alko decided to combine their expertise. They realised that research was needed in the brewery sector, into certain issues of importance to Finland. The key issue was developing and introducing varieties of malting barley that were suitable for Finland.
Rauno Sillanpää, the current Chairman of PBL Brewing Laboratory and Quality and Development Manager at Sinebrychoff, says that the research and testing of raw materials continues.
– Finding the right varieties of barley is challenging, because Finland is the world's northernmost country in which malting barley is grown. Due to our short growing season, growing conditions are quite different here to those of the traditional 'superpowers' in beer brewing in Central Europe.
In addition to ingredients, PBL Brewing Laboratory focuses on research areas such as fermentation techniques and processing, as well as product safety.
– Our operations are unique in the sense that we examine the entire value chain, including the cultivation of barley in the fields and the shelf life of beer.
It is also unusual for competitors to engage in close cooperation.
– PBL Brewing Laboratory's activities have a restricted focus. We engage in pre-competitive research intended to benefit the entire sector. But we cannot engage in the joint development of new products, for example.
One malt producer is currently among the owners of PBL Brewing Laboratory – Polttimo Group/Viking Malt – as well as four breweries – Oy Hartwall Ab, Oy Sinebrychoff Ab, Olvi Plc and Laitilan Wirvoitusjuomatehdas. VTT is the main research partner of PBL Brewing Laboratory.
– For instance, PBL Brewing Laboratory does not have its own premises – it is a network between different players, and a funder and coordinator of research projects, says Sillanpää.
Overseen by the Barley Committee
Timo Huttunen, who heads Northern Europe's largest malt producer, Viking Malt, points out that a separate Barley Committee operates in conjunction with PBL Brewing Laboratory. The committee plans and monitors the approval and listing of malting barley varieties that are suitable for Finnish conditions.
– It is in the interests of the entire industry – and of farmers, for example – that the best possible varieties in terms of agronomy, quality and the brewing process are cultivated.
In practice, PBL Brewing Laboratory tests varieties produced by separate breeding companies. Issues such as the crop yield of malting barley varieties are under constant development – old varieties cannot compete for long.
– In sum, PBL Brewing Laboratory provides Viking Malt with a good opportunity to engage in joint research alongside our customers; we hear about their challenges and can react to them, explains Huttunen.
He views PBL Brewing Laboratory as a major centre of excellence at global level.
– It is vital that VTT continues to contribute its own resources and networks, which add up to a lot of extra muscle.
Pre-competitive research that benefits all
Pia Hortling, Product Development and Purchasing Director at Olvi Plc, is also satisfied.
– Thanks to PBL Brewing Laboratory's diverse research portfolio, Olvi's research activities are more comprehensive than they otherwise would be, given our limited resources. The research carried out by PBL Brewing Laboratory is internationally respected and versatile. It increases our company's expertise and ability to grow and – in a similar way – those of the entire sector. The research also provides us with background information and understanding which we can benefit from in our own further research and when applying new ideas and research results.
Hortling believes that the importance of PBL Brewing Laboratory is emphasised by the fact that Finland lacks an educational institution in the sector.
– For example, PBL Brewing Laboratory has updated the sector's Finnish-language manual, Panimotekniikka (Brewing Technique). It regularly arranges training courses for the sector. In addition, it has led to the creation of a good expert network, which can still be consulted when individual projects have come to an end.
Hortling is currently involved in a research project on hygiene.
– Nowadays, breweries make many products in addition to beer, such as soft drinks, energy drinks, mineral water, ciders and long drinks. The research will explore the challenges created by these other beverages – and the microbe strains they bring – which use the same bottling lines as beer, and how such problems can be solved. No information is currently available on this.
When everything affects everything else
Beer has been brewed for thousands of years. Its first mention dates back to around 4,000 BC in ancient Sumer, in Mesopotamia. It may therefore seem strange that there is still much to learn about brewing.
Sillanpää chuckles and says that he has heard quips like this before.
– It is true that there is a huge amount still to learn about beer, in the spirit of continuous improvement. The deeper we go, the more issues we discover. A change in one link in the chain tends to impact on the others – everything affects everything else, he explains.
– The basic mechanism is the same as thousands of years ago: yeast reacts with the other ingredients. We start with barley and the fact that we understand what's in it. But that is really just the beginning. In addition to the effects of the process, the yeast and various ingredients – or the separate processing of such ingredients – always add new elements to the basic picture, Pia Hortling adds.
Role of product safety and sustainable development highlighted
Rauno Sillanpää believes that sustainable development issues will be among the future focuses at PBL Brewing Laboratory.
– For example, we are investigating how we can further reduce the carbon and water footprint of brewing. We are already among the world's best in terms of the water footprint. Due to Finland's tougher climate conditions, we are perhaps not doing quite as well in country comparisons of energy consumption.
Sillanpää believes that the importance of product safety will also be highlighted in the future.
– Product safety is already well developed, but of course there is always room for improvement. The public authorities are also demanding more documentation of various kinds.
"Nowadays, consumers are increasingly interested in various kinds of information – even highly detailed information. They may want to know about issues such as the gluten content of various kinds of beer. We would be unable to answer consumers' questions if we didn't engage in background research, Hortling says.
Pia Hortling and Timo Huttunen also expect, for example, various analysis methods associated with quality control to become faster and cheaper.
– Digitalisation is sure to provide plenty of new opportunities for research in the sector. PBL Brewing Laboratory has gathered an enormous amount of data on the different stages of brewing. Completely new ideas can be formed when data is combined and analysed, Timo Huttunen points out.
– Future research focuses will largely depend on our operating environment i.e, the issues raised in discussions and areas where there is a clear gap in our knowledge. PBL Brewing Laboratory engages in pre-competitive research, but it is also closely linked to practical issues. We want to ensure that research focuses on the essentials, Hortling says.
Sparkling over the years
Much has already been achieved.
– PBL Brewing Laboratory is part of the reason that Finnish beer has been of such high quality – the consumers are not sold microbiologically bad beer, Sillanpää explains.
– In recent years, we have also managed to eliminate gushing of beer, which was caused by certain microbial activity. We have been involved in improving the stability of beer aromas and flavours, and have played a key role in ensuring that the best possible malting barley is available in Finland.
Sillanpää mentions that a large group of developments related to brewing technology, but which are invisible to consumers, are on their way.
– PBL Brewing Laboratory also encouraged and assisted the Finnish brewery sector in shifting from separate main and secondary fermentation tanks to a single-tank system.
So how has the content of beer bottles changed since the early days of PBL Brewing Laboratory?
– Beer now has a much longer shelf life. It is more even in quality. What is more, brewing processes are much more efficient and eco-efficient than in the past, even if this is not obvious to consumers when swigging from bottles, Rauno Sillanpää says.
PBL Brewing Laboratory
Cooperation from barley to beer – to benefit the production chain
- PBL Brewing Laboratory (Oy Panimolaboratorio - Bryggerilaboratorium Ab) is a company devoted to pre-competitive research and development in malting and brewing.
- PBL Brewing Laboratory is owned by Polttimo Group/Viking Malt and four breweries – Oy Hartwall Ab, Oy Sinebrychoff Ab, Olvi Plc and Laitilan Wirvoitusjuomatehdas.
- VTT is the main research partner.
- Current research focuses include research on malting barley, product safety and sustainable development.
- Funds research projects covering the entire value chain from barley to beer.
- Coordinates industrial-scale trials and approval of possible new varieties of malting barley in Finland.