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A beer brewed by algorithms

Roasted grains of barley for making malt. ©Shutterstock/Maxpetrov

“In traditional breweries, brewers create the recipe for their beer based on current trends, their intuition or comments from those around them,” says Hew Leith, co-founder of IntelligentX, a London-based innovative start-up. The London entrepreneur has chosen to buck the trend: His brewery uses bots to find the perfect recipe based on consumer tastes.

How does it work? There is a code on the back of every beer bottle. Scanning it with a smartphone gives access to the Facebook Messenger application, which makes it possible to interact with a bot and give feedback, either by answering multiple-choice questions or by giving a rating from 1 to 10, for example: “Would you like a beer that’s more or less fizzy? More or less fruity? With fuller body?”

It is then that artificial intelligence (AI) comes into play. The company’s algorithm uses reinforcement learning and Bayesian optimisation techniques to interpret customer feedback. It even learns to ask ‘better’ questions thereafter. “Artificial intelligence enables us to put consumers in the same room as the brewer,” says Hew Leith. “Collecting this much data would be extremely difficult and time-consuming for a human being. Artificial intelligence, however, can gather and interpret it with ease.” Quite successfully too it seems, as the flavours of IntelligentX beers have been modified almost 20 times since the company was launched in 2015!

Global craze for craft beer

Ten thousand. That is the number of craft breweries in the world, according to a 2015 survey by the biotechnology company Alltech. Almost 5000 of them are located in Europe with an equal number in North America. The United States has the most with 4000 craft breweries, followed by the United Kingdom (more than 700) and France (650). In terms of breweries per capita, Switzerland claims top spot with 396 craft breweries, or 5 for every 100 000 citizens.

There is such a craze for craft beer that specialised guides have been created, notably in London, or even online maps, such as in Berlin, listing the breweries and bars that sell it. The American association of professional brewers organises an annual conference devoted to craft beer. Amateur brewers are not to be outdone: In the state of Queensland, Australia, they organise an ‘amateur brewing competition’, while in London, they regularly get together to share their knowledge and improve the beers they create themselves.

18 000 bottles sold

Can artificial intelligence ever replace the expertise of a traditional brewer? “It will never be able to upstage a brewer’s experience and skills,” concedes Hew Leith. He points out that his beers are the result of an association between artificial and human intelligence: A person brewing beer based on directions provided by the algorithm.

IntelligentX produces four different kinds of beer: Amber AI, Golden AI, Pale AI and Black AI. For the moment, the beer is sold only in Great Britain, at £4.50 a bottle (a little over 5 euros) 1. Hew Leith explains this relatively high price by the costs generated by the design and use of the artificial intelligence. He and his business partner Rob McInerney, came up with the idea of using artificial intelligence to create a beer...while drinking one! “We realised that computer data and algorithms were often used for mundane purposes,” says Hew Leith. “It’s much more fun when it involves beer!” Using technology like this also makes it easier to understand consumer preferences and thereby create ‘customised’ beers for certain types of customers. “For that, we needed to collect more data than we already had.”

So far, IntelligentX has sold over 18 000 bottles. Over the next few years, the two entrepreneurs hope to expand their distribution and sell their beers in other big cities, such as San Francisco or Berlin. Hew Leith even talks of Bangalore, the ‘Silicon Valley of India’: “We would like to become established wherever there is a high concentration of craft beer enthusiasts and researchers.” The two Londoners make no secret of their interest in other products “which arouse emotion, such as coffee, chocolate or even perfume.”

Industry or craft?

The idea of IntelligentX has already impressed Bart Watson, chief economist of the American Brewers Association, although he admits that it is difficult to assess the company’s potential given its young age. The specialist points out that, “It is unique in a country with several hundred craft breweries. Numerous breweries across the world are in fact already changing their recipes. And some are also asking for feedback from consumers, although they use other methods rather than artificial intelligence.” For Bart Watson, innovation is essential in a market where competition is stiff.

However, these new techniques are not to everyone’s taste. “Asking for feedback from your customers means selling yourself to the highest bidder, it means making industrial products,” exclaims Jérôme Rebetez, founder and owner of the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, in Switzerland. In 2009, the New York Times voted one of his specialities, the Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien, the world’s best beer.2 “We don’t brew beers based on consumer tastes. We make beers we like and then we explain our approach to the customers. That’s the work of a craft brewer!”

Julien Calligaro

After studying political science at the University of Geneva, Julien Calligaro has worked as a journalist for the LargeNetwork media agency since 2016. He is a fan of travel literature and 19th-century French novels, and is particularly fond of matters concerning politics and society.

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