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Back to School, Alcohol School

I was back in school for a few days last week – the Alcohol School, held in Montreal and cosponsored by the Ethanol Technology Institute and Lallemand Ethanol Technology.
By Susanne Retka Schill | September 24, 2012

I was back in school for a few days last week – the Alcohol School, held in Montreal and cosponsored by the Ethanol Technology Institute and Lallemand Ethanol Technology. And school it was – 45 minute lectures covering the theory and application of all the individual components of the ethanol process. I will be writing a feature for the December issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine, so look for some of the more timely topics there. In this blog, I want to share other thoughts and insights gained.

The fuel ethanol crowd is a mighty serious group when compared to the beverage alcohol folks. The beverage guys had a twinkle in their eye and tucked jokes into their presentations. Both groups are part of the alcohol school, splitting into separate sections for some industry-specific talks. The two groups are combined quite deliberately. A lot of the technologies translate directly to both sectors (fermentation is all about yeast, whether one is brewing scotch or whiskey or fuel ethanol). But there is a synergy that comes from learning how the other guys do something. New solutions arise, several of the presenters pointed out, when one learns about a new system.

One example given was in the presentation on milling. The talk covered the basic principles of the hammermills that dominate the fuel ethanol industry and issues that commonly arise. It also covered roller mills and how that technology differs. One ethanol plant in Iowa, we learned, took advantage of that difference to add roller mills sized to remove the fiber fraction, getting a relatively inexpensive partial front-end fractionation that allows it to increase its throughput.

Another intriguing factoid: Bacterial contamination in fermentation can be a critical problem. With yeast-developer and manufacturer Lallemand one of the cosponsors, the classes on fermentation issues were excellent. It was interesting to learn, though, that the lactic acid produced by bacteria, which creates big problems if it begins to accumulate in an ethanol plant, is actually responsible for part of the taste of scotch. Scotch distilleries want to allow a certain amount of lactic acid buildup towards the end of the fermentation.

I had a fascinating conversation with one of the experts on distilled spirits about how even in this age of expanding knowledge about molecular biology, which has gone into the development of enzymes and yeast, imbuing tastes into spirits is largely an art, for which the underlying science is still a mystery. Whiskey, rum and scotch distillers know what they’ve got to do, but not exactly how it all works.

I wasn’t able to stay for the entire school, so I understand that I missed one of the highlights – a session where the students learn the art of tasting and judging spirits. I definitely would have enjoyed at least getting a whiff of three of the world’s most-produced spirits, none of which I’d heard of before. Baijiu is the world’s leading spirit, made by millions of Chinese and nearly all consumed domestically. Soju is the indigenous drink from Korea and Japan, and number three in global production. Cachaca is fourth, made from sugarcane by hundreds of thousands of small distillers in Brazil.  When I asked about an estimated total global production of beverage alcohol, just to compare it with fuel ethanol, I was told nobody really knows. Many of the small distillers of these indigenous spirits operate under the radar. In Brazil, for instance, there are an estimated 30,000, who provide such an important part of the economy that the government doesn’t seriously enforce licensing laws.

One interesting fact from the feedstock talk: if all the sugar and starch crops that can be used to make fuel ethanol in the world were converted, and none used for food or feed, it would still comprise only 20 percent of the global liquid transportation fuel market. Nobody, of course, is even suggesting that would ever be the case. But, the speaker also noted that the nature of commodity markets is that it only takes a 2 or 5 percent change in supply/demand dynamics to have a profound effect on prices. The increase in biofuel supplies is having an impact on the oil market.