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VUB beer? University to transform old dorms into micro-brewery for beer, chocolate and bread

09:25 03/02/2023

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has plans to make use of some old student dorms that are no longer suitable as residences: they’re going to make beer, bread and chocolate in them.

VUB invested €3 million into a pilot project that has transformed the old living spaces into a microbrewery with equipment that will not only let them make beer but also sourdough bread and the Belgian staple, chocolate.

The pilot project is housed in Van Der Meeren's old student quarters on the Etterbeek campus and is fully operational, with 21 PhD students collaborating on the project.

“We will brew, bake and make chocolate under the banner of the Fermented Food Pilot Plant,” said Luc De Vuyst, the project’s initiator and professor of industrial microbiology and food biotechnology.

“The main aim is to better map the impact of microbiological fermentation processes for the production of sour beers, sourdough bread and cocoa and to better understand their influence on flavour formation.”

The "microbakkerij’s" discoveries are expected to contribute to industry research and build upon existing expertise, including 25 years of perfecting sourdough.

“Our bakery infrastructure will be available for contract research for industry, where we can work with small and medium enterprises, and large companies, to fine-tune and describe their specific fermentation processes under controlled conditions in a near-lab environment and with sufficient scale as a function of the breads and other bakery products produced,” De Vuyst said.

“We are also going to bake VUB sourdough bread here, which can be sold on our campuses.”

The chocolate aspect of the brewery also revolves entirely around fermentation, though its plans are currently somewhat modest.

Researchers will be making chocolate, but not necessarily studying chocolate technology.

“We now have a very well-equipped chocolate production line at the VUB with which we can investigate and describe the effects of the fermentation of cocoa beans – spontaneous or started with starter cultures, processes we have been studying for 20 years – on the final chocolate,” De Vuyst explained.

VUB researchers carry out experiments in fermentation in Costa Rica and Ecuador, among other countries, carefully and continuously monitoring the processes.

“We then ship those fermented dry beans to the campus in Brussels where we turn them into chocolate,” said De Vuyst.

“The aim is not immediately to make the very best chocolate, but rather to investigate what is needed at the fermentation level to make the very best chocolate. Our research should eventually enable us to further develop our own know-how and use it to make delicious VUB chocolate.”

Last but certainly not least is, of course, the beer.

“We have built up a lot of knowledge about spontaneous fermentation for the production of sour beers in recent years,” said De Vuyst.

“We’ve been studying the production of lambic, a Belgian beer produced and matured in wooden barrels, since 2010. For the production of our sour beers - I emphasise that this is not lambic - we are going to try to do this without wooden barrels. There is a growing interest in sour beers worldwide.”

The goal is for VUB to launch several innovative beers, which can then be sold or consumed on campus.

The high-tech, lab-grade equipment means a certain scientific precision to the method of making all three treats.

“There is virtually no bakery in Belgium where you can find completely pure sourdough,” De Vuyst said, speaking of the bread-baking aspect.

“Almost everywhere you can find baker's yeast in the sourdough. With us, no cross-contamination will be possible.”

Written by Helen Lyons