Brussels university opens brewery, bakery and mini chocolate factory on campus

Brussels university opens brewery, bakery and mini chocolate factory on campus
The microbrewery. Credit: VUB

When thinking about what makes a typical university campus, a microbrewery, a bakery and a mini chocolate factory are not likely to be the first things that come to mind. However, this is exactly what you will find at one university in the Belgian capital.

Brussels' Dutch-speaking university Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has invested €3 million to start brewing beer, baking bread and making chocolate on its Etterbeek campus. These are all key pillars of its new major fermentation project "Fermented Food Pilot Plant," literally bringing life to the ground's old Van Der Meeren's student quarters.

"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," initiator of the project and Professor of Industrial Microbiology and Food Biotechnology Luc De Vuyst said.

Fermentation is the process of sugars being broken down by enzymes of microorganisms in the absence of oxygen. A total of 21 PhD students will be active at the plant, however, it will also be opened to SMEs and larger companies in the industry, allowing them to fine-tune their specific fermentation processes under controlled conditions in a near-lab environment.

Three pillars of fermentation

In the bakery, students will focus on putting into practice the scientific discoveries and accumulated expertise on sourdough from the past 25 years and will bake the university's very own sourdough bread, which can then be sold on its campuses.

Fermentation is also at the heart of the mini chocolate factory, where the goal is to investigate and describe the effects of the fermentation of cocoa beans, whether it is spontaneous fermentation or if the process is artificially started with starter cultures, both carried out by VUB researchers in the jungles of Costa Rica and Ecuador.

2a51b797-screenshot-2023-02-01-at-15.01.07.png The micro bakery on the Etterbeek campus. Credit: VUB

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

The university also has a press that can extract cocoa butter from its own fermented dry beans, a unique feature for a university pilot plant. "Our research should eventually enable us to further develop our own know-how and use it to make our own delicious chocolate," De Vuyst noted.

The final pillar of the fermentation pilot project is the microbrewery, where researchers will try their hand at producing sour beers — for which there is growing interest internationally — with a mixture of yeast, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria, maturing it without requiring wooden barrels.

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"We do not yet know whether it will succeed, but based on previous attempts by various researchers that did not lead to the desired success and new knowledge, we think we can make it work now. In any case, the intention is to launch several, innovative VUB beers, which can then be bought on campus."

The first final products of the plant are expected in just a few weeks' time.

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