The science and art of ‘sparging your wort’

Posted by pt91 at Jun 10, 2014 04:50 PM |
The Medical School’s Dr Ray Carson talks about his prize-winning beers and an ancient Saxon tradition in the first in a series of features on life outside of the University
The science and art of ‘sparging your wort’

Ray Carson receives the prize for his IPA at the Saltaire competition in March 2012.

Other Lives: Focus on life beyond the campus

“Some of the terms used in brewing date from Saxon times. There are not many hobbies where you can say that you have been sparging your wort!” Remarks Dr Ray Carson, illustrating the long tradition of craft brewing in the UK through its unique terminology.

He explains: “Water is liquor, grain is the goods, mashing is mixing hot water with the grain, and sparging is the process of spraying the grain with hot water to wash out the extract. Before fermentation the beer is called ‘wort’ (pronounced ‘wurt’).”

“What I like about craft brewing is that you can produce a quality beer that is better than commercial beer for a fraction of the cost. I brew almost all types of beers: bitters, stouts, porters, IPAs, wheat beers, saisons, but not lagers. I like the ability to experiment with different grains, hops and yeast, which all affect flavour, and I never brew the same beers twice.”

Surfin IPAHis experiments are certainly not to be sniffed at: he has won two prizes for his beers in national competitions, a 2nd place in a British Pale Ale regional competition and a 4th place for an IPA at the annual competition in Shipley. He is also developing a beer with a commercial brewery that he is keeping under his hat for the time being.

Here at Leicester, Ray is a Senior Lecturer teaching metabolism to medical students and has worked in medical research and teaching for 34 years. He has been brewing since his student days, starting with kits to save money.

“I progressed to using malt extract and hops, before moving to full grain mashing, as used in commercial breweries.” He continues. “I was inspired at the time by the brewing books of Dave Line and I have now been brewing using full grain mash for 34 years.

“We prefer the term ‘craft brew’, as ‘homebrew’ has some negative historical connotations. Currently there is an explosion in craft beers and even some large commercial brewers have set up smaller craft breweries.”

Ray’s biomedical background does give him a unique insight, as he demonstrates: “Beer contains some useful nutrients such as selenium, which is an anti-oxidant, and the B vitamins from the yeast. Brewing is essentially inorganic chemistry, for the water treatment, and applied biochemistry, for fermentation. However, there is an art to it and you do not have to be a scientist to be a brewer.”

SilverYet when debate in craft brewing circles turned to how much copper from brewing equipment ended up in the finished beer, Ray was able to bring his professional expertise to bear.

“The Midlands Craft Brewers paid for some samples of beer at different stages of the process to be analysed for copper by the Department of Geology. The levels of copper were very low and I calculated that you would have to drink 25 litres of beer in one go to get anywhere near the upper recommended limit for copper! However, copper is a necessary trace element, which is required by some enzymes and so sources of copper in the diet are useful.”

His advice for those tempted by a tipple of their own? “The basic equipment for brewing is not expensive and the ingredients are relatively cheap, so anyone could start craft brewing and continue an ancient tradition. In Saxon times women did all of the brewing and there are currently some top female brewers (called ‘brewsters’) and beer sommeliers, so this is a hobby that everyone can get involved in.”

Dr Ray Carson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Medical and Social Care Education, teaching physiology, biochemistry, anatomy and pharmacology to medical students and researching reproductive physiology.

Do you have an idea for a feature, or know someone with an interesting story to tell? Let the News Centre know at

Share this page: