Star brewer Katharine Smart on bringing science to beer: ‘Yeast cells are gorgeous’

Education has been the mainstay of Katherine Smart’s three-decade-long brewing career. Before joining drinks giant Diageo in January 2019, Smart racked up an impressive list of academic achievements.

She holds a PhD in brewing yeast and fermentation; a separate doctorate in brewing and distilling; she set up a brewing school at the University of Nottingham; and taught the practice as a professor at Cambridge and Oxford Brookes universities. 

Her latest appointment as Renter Warden of the Worshipful Company of Brewers – a City livery company that was granted a royal charter in 1438 by Henry VI – will allow her to combine two of her greatest passions: research and professional development. 

“I like developing people and that’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. In fact, it’s probably the absolute thread throughout my career,” she says. 

The appointment is also a milestone for the industry. After nearly 600 years, Smart is the first ever woman to become a Renter Warden in a sector that has historically been dominated by men. 

Smart became “truly enamored by the use of microbes” as an undergraduate biological sciences student at Nottingham in the mid-1980s and, from there, was sponsored by Bass Brewery in Burton upon Trent to undertake a PhD, working on yeast and fermentation.

“I was entirely unprepared for falling absolutely head over heels for the process of brewing –  and obviously for the yeast cells themselves, because when you look down the microscope, they do look rather gorgeous,” she says. “It’s just a fascinating process.”

But the brewing business was severely lacking in diversity when Smart first became involved. She recalls being the only woman in the room at conferences, meetings and formal events for years at the beginning of her career.

“The biggest challenge was that there weren’t any role models who were in senior positions at the time,” she says. “And that’s actually very important, particularly when you’re in your early career to be able to really start to learn from and identify with leaders who you know have key similarities to yourself.”

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