A curious thirst for the engineering of beer

Like many engineering minds, Rodrigo Ribeiro Meireles is endlessly curious. The 30-year-old chemical engineer always wanted to learn how things work, intrigued by how machines function – and notably, how beer was made from barley, and vodka from potatoes.

“I am so curious in that regard that I would see myself satisfied in other types of engineering as well –like mechanical, electrical, or even automation,” Meireles explains. “But chemical engineering was the one that answered most of my questions.”

It’s also the one field that could combine his passion for beer and engineering, offering a playground to apply technical know-how to the precise process of brewing.

For Meireles, it also set the stage to work for the top two largest breweries in the world.

“The process of making beer applies a lot of what we learn in chemical engineering, and the good part is that you can taste it at the end … well, at least if you make good beer,”says Meireles, currently a student in Niagara College’s Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program (Canada’s first ever program) and a brewery research assistant working on real-world projects with the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.

“The structure of the lab and pilot plant is incredible, and I get experience working with the equipment I will surely have to deal with in a brewery in the future.”

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Universidade Federal do Ceará, in his home country of Brazil, Meireles was accepted into a one-year international chemical engineering exchange program in Bordeaux, France. During that time, he was exposed to various types of beers, different styles he could not find back home.

“I tried different beers from Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, England, Spain, and more,” he recalls. “It fascinated me how broad the beer culture could be and the different flavours I could extract from mainly three ingredients: yeast, hops and malt.”

After returning to Brazil, Meireles got the opportunity to work at the multinational AB (Anheuser-Busch) Inbev as packaging supervisor. There he learned best practices and management methodologies, leading teams with up to 50 employees. He later joined another giant, Heineken, in 2019, as packaging coordinator, overseeing four major production lines, including mineral water, soft drinks, canned beer and bottled beer.

“These two breweries were like a second university to me, as I learned a lot about beer, engineering and people management – and it just made me more certain that I chose the right path for myself.”

He describes the packaging and production field of brewing as dynamic and an opportunity to learn something new every day. Yet, he wanted to take a deeper dive into the making of the beer itself. In his search for the best education in this specialization, he identified the NC Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program for its excellence in this field.

“The quality of the staff was sure one of the main reasons to choose Niagara College; they are all highly experienced and renowned in the field,” explains Meireles. “Also, with the practical learning aspects that come with the Teaching Brewery here, it really makes this course stand above most in the industry.”

This spring, he jumped at the chance for additional hands-on experience when the Research & Innovation’s CFWI Innovation Centre posted a position for brewery research assistant.

Inside the research labs and the Centre’s new pilot processing plant, Meireles is currently working on three different projects: One is related to dairy emulsion formulation. The second, quality control and product development for alcoholic ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages. The third involves distilling and creating one vodka-based and one gin-based RTD beverage.

“The most interesting for me is the vodka and gin distillation, as this is something I have studied in chemical engineering but never had the chance to actually do it.”

In all the projects, he has the opportunity to learn from the research experts. “The specialists are all very knowledgeable and willing to help and teach, and that, in my opinion, is one of the best benefits of working here,” he says. “The structure of the lab and pilot plant is incredible, and I get experience working with the equipment I will surely have to deal with in a brewery in the future.”

As a surprise wedding gift, Meireles created and bottled a unique India Pale Ale and dedicated it to his new bride Luísa.

He’s hoping that future includes a permanent opportunity to stay in Canada and work in the beer industry.

“I’m working on it, and I am one French test away from it, and hopefully, I can obtain permanent residency this year.”

Meireles continues to enjoy his hobby of homebrewing. In fact, using his brew-engineering savvy, he created and bottled a unique India Pale Ale as a surprise wedding gift to his bride for the 2018 celebration. The bottle was adorned with his wife’s name, Luísa, and included a special side description (translated from Portuguese): “This beer was made to celebrate one of the most important moments in a couple’s life, the wedding day. Luísa is a strong, balanced beer, perfumy and memorable, just like the woman in which it was inspired. This beer was made to be appreciated for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; in joy and in sorrow; to love and to cherish.”

He and his wife live in St. Catharines.