Nicole Steinhilber is the in-house chemist at Edmund's Oast Brewing. | Photo by Rūta Smith

A brewery can be a physically demanding place to work. Between the taproom in the front of a business, and production in the “back of the house,” there is always some heavy lifting to do. A single keg or half barrel, as the industry calls it, weighs 160 pounds when full. So whether you are stocking the cooler or filling these beasts, a day at the brewery offers a workout. 

Most breweries build out open concept spaces, especially the smaller ones. An open concept space allows the consumer to see interesting things in the production area of a brewery. While not all beer drinkers will inquire, a true craft beer patron will generally want to know stuff like, “What do Citra hops taste like in a beer” or “Why is there lactose in this sour” and “How can I take this beer to go?” Craft beer lovers want to know more than the average consumer. And nothing makes a beertender work harder than a party of six, all of whom order flights. 

If you work in production, everything you deal with is heavy, wet, dangerous — or all three. Days are filled with brewing beer, filling kegs, and packaging bottles and cans. And then there’s cleaning. Always, every day, cleaning – the tanks, the floors, the parts. Show up early, stay late. Weekends and holidays? Most undoubtedly. 

The Brewer’s Association recognizes 79 styles of beers in 15 style families. Each person has taste buds and have their own opinions. While I might love Oak Road Brewing’s lagers or Hobcaw Brewing’s Hazy IPAs, you might prefer Charles Towne Fermentory’s Banana Foster’s Imperial Stout or Brewlab’s Mayfield Brown Ale. Each and every beer has its own flavor palate, SRM, IBU and ABV. But what is SRM, IBU and ABV? And how does a brewery determine these metrics? These terms are basics in the beer community but give a lot of depth to a beer’s profile if you understand them. 

Standard Reference Method (SRM) is the method for color assessment of wort or beer as published in the recommended methods of the American Society of Brewing Chemists. 

IBU is an abbreviation for the International Bitterness Units scale, a gauge of beer’s bitterness. 

We told you we’d teach you a thing or two! 

How chemistry makes great beer

We sat down and talked with The Lady of the Lab, Nicole Steinhilber, and learned how chemistry makes great beer.

Originally from Massachusetts, Nicole began her chemistry career in medical marijuana, specializing in growing operations. She checked for impurities, such as fungus and heavy metals. Although she intended to be a pediatrician, Nicole fell in love with chemistry and eventually switched her major to biology. 

After her two sisters attended the University of South Carolina, they encouraged her to move to Charleston with them in 2015. While working as a bartender at Locals in Mount Pleasant, she became enamored by the local craft beer scene. At Locals, she met Ryan Coker, one of the owners of Revelry brewing. A couple of conversations later, she started working full-time in 2017 as its brewery chemist. Her work included yeast management and propagation, along with research and development in Revelry’s lab. This was a first for a brewery in Charleston. Revelry’s yeast development flourished under her care and helped create award-winning beer. 

In November 2019, she left Revelry to start her own consulting business. “I wanted to give other breweries access to science.” That business is called Craft Solutions. “It gives me the chance to do what I love. I get to build programs for quality checks and procedures to improve beer.” She continues to do freelance work around the state. She also works with Grist Analytics, analyzing “Key performance indicators.” Translation? She tells brewers when there are areas that can be improved chemically with their beer. 

In May 2021, Cameron Reed approached her about working full-time as the in-house chemist at Edmund’s Oast Brewing. She accepted this opportunity and now works along with Jack Delanty, a Clemson graduate in biochemistry. “It’s great having someone to bounce ideas and problems off of.”

A typical day for them starts with gathering samples from 24 fermentors. After checking gravity, acidy (ph) and temperature, she starts with the production schedule for each tank. Then they move on to the bigger stuff like checking the microbiological stability of the beer at the canning line, beer specification documents to establish a quality baseline and monitoring yeast as it metabolizes carbohydrates to create ethanol. 

We spent a little time with Nicole in her lab, and watched her go through the process of checking for diacetyl in beer samples. “I am very detail oriented. I love the science of what I do. It’s great working with Cam here at Edmund’s. Once a week we sit down and discuss the beers, what we should and shouldn’t be doing. Our goal is to always work towards improvement.” 

She is clean and neat in her work, and even while chatting, she carefully monitored the timer and fluid level of a rack of test tubes. Jack worked behind her in a vacuum hood heating a probe and creating bateria samples. They had a magazine open on the counter. “It’s the American Society of Brewing Chemists journal.” Nicole said. “I keep up on current research with them and the hot topics in the Masters Brewer’s Association.” 

When we left the lab, it was with a deeper understanding of the science of craft beer. We also ran into some familiar faces along the way. We chatted with Brandon Plyler, Edmund’s public relations director and resident Level 3 Cicerone and caught up on upcoming events. Basically, he’s almost an expert in beer. We stopped by the brewhouse and got a hug from the best brewer/hugger in town, Clint Vick, and then we were convinced by General Manager Devin Marquardt to grab a couple of samples. We tried to catch a glimpse of craft beer star Timmons Pettigrew, but missed him somehow. 

The chemistry of beer is a chemical romance. It ebbs and flows but with the right amount of ingredients and tender loving care… magic is made!

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