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Smolar performing tests in the lab

Tucked away in Sun King Brewing Company's downtown Indianapolis location is a science laboratory equipped with chemistry hoods and mass spectrometry equipment. The scientist running the lab is Kevin Smolar, quality control director for Sun King and School of Science alumnus.

So how does the forensic science M.S. graduate ensure Sun King delivers quality beer with that familiar taste?

"I don't just drink beer all day, that's always the first question I get," Smolar said.

Smolar in the Sun King Brewery lab

Kevin Smolar in the Sun King Brewery lab.

As one of the largest breweries in the state, Sun King is a production brewery that focuses on making beer for distribution. That means quality and consistency are essential.

"We have five core brands—Sunlight, Wee Mac, Osiris, Pachanga, SKB IPA—those account for about 90 percent of our sales," Smolar said. "It's all about quality control and quality assurance, and that's the focus on my job. I make sure every beer is the same every single time we make it."

Sun King's lab is staffed by Smolar who focuses on the chemistry and Megan Pelsor, who handles biology.

"It's a two-fold effort of both biology and chemistry to make sure the beer is made the right way," Smolar said.

In forensic labs, a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC/MS) may be used for looking at the chemistry of illicit drugs. For Smolar, that same equipment allows him to analyze beer flavors.

Smolar performing a test

"All beer flavors are just chemical compounds, we are breaking those out and we quantify them," Smolar said. He also measures calorie and nutritional content as regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Within the lab, Smolar uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to identify organisms in the beer and ensure it's the correct genetic match. PCR is used widely in molecular biology labs to study a sample of DNA. Any contamination can change the beer's flavor or even cause cans to explode.

"Our goal is just being as clean as possible to make sure we're only introducing brewer's yeast," Smolar said. "PCR is one of the biggest tools we have for looking for any contamination such as bacteria or wild yeast that we don't want to enter the product."

From forensic science to beer science

Smolar always had his sight set on a career in science. After earning a master's degree in biology from IUPUI, he was accepted into the IU School of Medicine. He quickly learned medical school was not the right path for him. While figuring out his next move in April 2012, Smolar started working part-time at Sun King in the tasting room and filling growlers. That fall, he enrolled in the School of Science's master's program in forensic science. As a student, Smolar worked in the lab with researcher Christine Picard, Ph.D.

Smolar in the brewery lab

Smolar continued working at Sun King doing various jobs until he graduated in 2014. And the time was right—the position in Sun King's lab had just opened.

While Smolar never imagined his forensic science degree would lead to a career in a brewery lab, the move was very seamless. Forensic science degrees make a lot of sense for quality control careers, he said.

"What's neat about forensics is that everything is tightly controlled and regimented—you have to be clean with it," he said. "Instead of finding whose DNA is this, you're looking for spoilage organisms in your product. It really was a matter of switching from blood and semen to beer."

Be sure to catch Kevin's upcoming presentation, Better Science Through Beer, as part of our latest installment of Science on Tap!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020
5:30 p.m.
Centerpoint Brewing Company

More info and registration

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