In professor Callie Cole’s laboratory at Fort Lewis College, undergraduate students get to study a common interest: alcohol.
But far from the practice of imbibing, these chemistry students are researching how to make hard cider smell and taste better. The project takes Southwest Colorado’s history of growing apples to a new level with real-world applications for local cideries and students.
“It’s a really great project because it’s accessible to students the moment they land here,” Cole said. “So not only is this project really fascinating and fun, it’s amazing training for the next generation of scientists.”
In 2018, Cole invited local cider-maker Jared Scott, co-owner of EsoTerra, to speak to her analytical chemistry class. The presentation about the science of cider had Cole and her students hooked, she said.
“When I see that much student interest in any project, I really try to pursue it,” she said.
Cole received grant funding from the Society for Analytical Chemists of the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Analytical Research Program and the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. Agilent Technologies donated a $500,000 liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry instrument.
The FLC students picked five apple varieties from the apple orchard at the Old Fort, the former FLC campus, and a private farm near Hermosa. In the laboratory, general chemistry students applied their knowledge of titrations, which help measure the acidity of juice in cider making. Analytical chemistry students used instruments like mass spectrometers to study the fermentation process.
The students tweaked the yeast strains, temperature, apple varieties, the use of dry hops and other variables in the fermentation process. The goal was to analyze how chemistry can be used to manipulate the smell and taste of hard cider.
In the first two years, the research was featured in multiple publications. It was presented at the 2019 American Society for Mass Spectrometry Conference and the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy in 2020. The work was also featured on the cover of Beverages, an academic journal, in September 2020.
“Fort Lewis College students are really doing graduate-level research here, and I’m so impressed by what they’re able to accomplish,” Cole said.
Southwest Colorado has a long history of growing quality apples. In the late 19th century, farmers grew hundreds of varieties of apples in Colorado. Apples from La Plata and Montezuma counties once won three of four gold medals at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, according to the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project.
Some of those orchards were lost when the national trend began to favor three varieties and cider fell from popularity.
The Cortez-based nonprofit, and other local cideries, are interested in revitalizing the region’s orchard economy. The research at FLC might offer insight for local businesses.
“With the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, local cideries and the chemistry to back it up, we’re really going to bring some attention to some interesting forgotten fruits in the Four Corners region,” Cole said. “That is really, really exciting.”
One surprising finding: how quickly adding hops alters flavor, she said.
The timing is much-debated within the industry. Some conclude that hops need 10 days in the mixture to produce a perceivable effect. The undergraduate researchers found that hops produced a perceivable citrus-smell within 72 hours.
The finding is still being peer-reviewed, but results like that can have impacts on the quality and efficiency of the cider-making process for businesses, Cole said.
The research is ongoing, but Cole’s funding is not. Her original funding sources end in August. FLC awarded her some internal grants, but Cole is still searching for new funding sources.
In the meantime, students will turn their attention to bottles of apple juice, frozen at various stages of the fermentation process. Their next step is to experiment on taste profiles using liquid chromatography, which separates components in a mixture.
In the future, Cole sees a potential sensory panel (with people over 21 and older) or even a partnership with Ska Brewing Co.
“These local community collaborations are the most interesting projects for students,” Cole said. “They see their future careers.”