The Science of Stouts: May Le ’15 Working Behind the Scenes on Some of Boston’s Best Brews

Boston and beer have a long history—from the first brewing license issued in 1630 to the more recent explosion of craft and microbreweries.

Since 2015, Emmanuel chemistry alumna May Le has been working hard to ensure some of Boston's best brews are up to the consumer's historically discerning standards.

A quality assurance laboratory technician at the Boston-based Trillium Brewing (the third-best brewery in the world for 2019, according to RateBeer), May works in the brewery's Canton location. She is part of a four-person team, which also includes a microbiologist, a chemist and a sensory educator, who report to their supervisor on everything from recipe development and testing results to off colors and odors. In Trillium's lab, May uses her chemistry acumen for color analyzing and her biology background for yeast counting and micro-sampling. She also uses some lab equipment and techniques she was trained on at Emmanuel, including spectrometers, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and column chromatography.

"I love the atmosphere at Trillium, the founders are very hands-on," May said, "I see them on the floor of the brewery nearly every day."  

May didn't always want to pursue chemistry; she came to Emmanuel as a biology major with an interest in pre-medical studies. As she tackled more courses, she developed a greater interest in chemistry, but through volunteer work at Boston Children's Hospital and an internship at Novartis, May realized she didn't want to work in either a clinical or research setting—and her career path began to change.  

May credits the late Christine Jaworek-Lopes, an associate professor of chemistry at Emmanuel, with helping her see beyond the bench. During May's junior year, Dr. Jaworek-Lopes sent her chemistry students some information on the many career paths—including less traditional options—that one can take with a chemistry degree. May looked through the list and was drawn to food science, so she began looking for jobs in breweries and wineries.  

In the spring semester of her senior year, May landed an internship as a QA/QC laboratory intern at another Boston-based brewing giant, Harpoon Brewery. Months later, nearing her spring 2015 graduation, May applied to jobs all over the country, but she realized she wanted to stay in Massachusetts, and in the brewing industry.  

"My internships were so valuable because not only did they confirm what I didn't want to do after graduation but gave me a glimpse of an area I did want to explore," she said. "The experience at Harpoon really helped me in determining where I wanted to be in the future. I enjoyed the atmosphere, and they welcomed me into their family, which made a better experience for me."  

She asked her supervisor if there was a position open at Harpoon, and they quickly offered her a position as a Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/QC) Technician. Her responsibilities included chemical analysis to determine the color, International Bitterness Unit (IBU) and pH levels in the brews. She also had some microbiology responsibilities when collecting and plating beer samples to see if there was any contamination.  

After nearly two years at Harpoon, May spent some time in New Zealand, where she served as an independent consultant, advising breweries in water chemistry, performed quality testing, helped develop standard operating procedures for laboratories and aided clients in creating sour beers with various techniques. 

Her advice to current students and other young alums, "If you're getting any degree, don't think that you're limited to one field. There were times when I thought, 'I can only use chemistry to work in a lab in the medical field,' but there are plenty of career choices out there that you can decide on."

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