Attaining the IBD Diploma gives an internationally recognised and comprehensive understanding of distilling science and its application.
Distillation Alchemy Beyond Spirits
Ruth Stenhouse Smith
Senior Design Manager at Blue Projects - from Johannesburg to the World.
Winner of the Simpson Malt and Briggs of Burton Awards for Diploma in Distilling Modules 1 and 3 in 2020.
The science of brewing and distilling is universal. The same chemical reaction that can be used to produce the drinks that we all enjoy can also apply to other industrial processes, making this technical knowledge a highly valued asset for all candidates who take the IBD qualifications.
Her knowledge of chemistry and deep understanding of how components and their ratios react to different processes to achieve the desired outcome has facilitated her seamless move across industries.
Ruth Stenhouse Smith, currently Senior Design Manager at Blue Projects, a global multidisciplinary engineering company working cross-sectors with headquarters in Romania and offices in 19 countries, is proof of this.
Ruth’s knowledge of chemistry and her deep understanding of how components and their ratios react to different processes to achieve the desired outcome has facilitated her seamless move across industries. She shows how transferrable this knowledge is and how is possible to apply it to very different industries: distillation of spirits and biofuel production.
“I've always been interested in biochemical engineering and how natural ingredients react to each other since I was young. Brewing is actually one of the oldest and I guess one of the most developed forms of biochemical engineering. We have the cereals, and the yeast and then you make alcohol and CO2. That reaction is an attraction for me.”
After starting her career in the pharmaceutical industry, working as a logistic manager for Adcock Ingram, one of the leading South African pharmaceutical companies, in 1997 Ruth joined South African Breweries (SAB) at its brewery in Durban.
“I started as a filtration manager, then became a brew manager involved in the whole brewing process: brewhouse, fermentation, storage and maturation, filtration, and packaging. Later I branched off into internal consulting and projects within the company”.
It was at SAB where Ruth had her first introduction to the IBD, taking and passing the Diploma in Brewing in 2000.
A successful career at SAB
Part of the training at SAB was to get the Diploma in Brewing to acquire the knowledge and gain credibility as a brewer. The company encouraged, supported and sponsored Ruth’s studies.
“The Diploma in Brewing gave me a much broader sense of the industry. I was working at SAB, a very big organisation, but with a very specific product: lager beers. With the Diploma I was able to learn a little bit more about other brewing types, ale brewing, other yeast types and different flavours and different packaging and configurations.
It gave me a more overall sense of the brewing industry as opposed to just the narrow focus I had from working for a specific company.”
One of the highlights of my career was working at a greenfield brewery in Tanzania. This brewery won the Brewery of the Year award in Africa due to the quality of the products and its excellent KPIs in terms of losses, yields, and usages of energy and water.
At SAB, Ruth was involved in production as well as operations and mainly consultancy projects, spending the last 10 years in the organisation building breweries across Africa, with a special focus on Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda, Mozambique and Zambia.
“I spent two years living in Tanzania, working on a greenfield brewery that produces around 600,000 hL of beer per year. Both from a personal and a professional point of view, that was probably one of the highlights of my career. Two or three years later, this brewery won the Brewery of the Year award in Africa due to the quality of the products and its excellent KPIs in terms of losses, yields, and usages of energy and water.
Personally, the main reward was to be able to share my brewing knowledge. The guys I worked with were so enthusiastic, although not all of them had much experience in brewing. I was having to explain quite a lot of the brewing process detail”.
When SAB was acquired by AB InBev, Ruth decided to branch out into consulting and started working for Blue Projects.
Branching out to a different sector with confidence
Still in consultancy, but out of the brewing industry, she started working for Blue Projects.
“We provide consultancy services to many sectors, including the food and beverage industry. We have inquiries from clients related to the distilling sector, with one, in particular, producing bioethanol. So I decided to take the Diploma in Distilling to have a solid distilling knowledge to serve them better”.
At Blue Projects, Ruth helps clients with fron-tend engineering and advises them on greenfield (the side is built on land not previously developed) and brownfield (on land priviously developed) capacity calculations and process design development.
“From the sustainability aspect, especially coming from a design project career, the challenge for me and my team which is spread across the world, is always to do the next project better.
How can we make the process more efficient, have better yields, better quality, and fewer natural resources? It's about optimising CIP (Cleaning in Place), optimising pipe diameters, flow rates, and other industrial aspects”.
She is also involved in capacity calculations and process design development of PFDs, P&IDs and process descriptions, showing how industrial process equipment is interconnected and the instruments and valves that monitor and control the flow of materials through the pipelines.
In 2020, Ruth decided to enrol in the Diploma in Distilling and sit the three modules in the same year.
“I thought how am I going to do all this work? But then, during the pandemic, most of the projects stopped. Most of the companies did not want consultants on their sites, and so I was very lucky to have that time to be able to use productively to study”.
With the technical knowledge acquired from both Diplomas, Ruth finds some similarities between them but obviously some important differences.
“The distilling is a lot broader in terms of the raw materials and the fermentation process is a lot more diverse than brewing, where you have a relatively small number of raw materials that are quite similar in terms of grains and sugars. It's not just malt whiskey distilling. Now you learn about tequila, rum - close to my heart because I live in a sugar cane growing area-, brandy, grappa, and so on.”
All this knowledge on distilling and spirits production techniques is used by Ruth to deploy projects on bio-ethanol.
Ruth provides guidance and advice to generate bio-ethanol as a by-product of grain distillation helping her client to potentially produce in the order of 45 000 m3 per annum of bio-ethanol to generate E10 and E5.
Certainly, distilling is pure alchemy and goes well beyond the drinks world. Ruth provides guidance and advice to generate bio-ethanol as a by-product of grain distillation helping her client to potentially produce in the order of 45 000 m3 per annum of bio-ethanol to generate E10 (90 octane petrol with no more than 10% ethanol), E5 ( 95 octane petrol with no more than 5% ethanol). The bio-ethanol is an alcohol used as a blending agent with gasoline to increase octane to cut down carbon monoxide and other smog-causing emissions.
Bio-fuels are big in Europe but they aren’t allowed in South Africa because they are generally made from food products like sugar or corn. In Europe, where large amounts of corn are produced, there is a big corn production, this crop is considered an old product that generates subsidies and it’s seen as a green fuel source.
The importance of the mass balance
Ruth advises on how to use corn to produce glucose, for later fermenting that glucose, and distilling it to make alcohol for fuel for vehicles. To do it correctly, it’s vital to know the stages of fuel oil and how that impacts the distillation column and understand the scientific reasons behind this reaction to ensure the right mass balance in the produced alcohol.
Being able to understand all the streams going into and coming out from the distillation process and being able to calculate those confidently was another extra benefit of taking the Diploma in Distilling. Because of that, Blue Projects has been able to penetrate other sectors by adding this service to our offering.
“Working on a mass balance for this plant-based renewable ethanol, I’m able to refer back to my IBD learning material to see what percentage should come from the beer column, what percentage alcohol should I get from the rectification column to check the ratios and make sure that my mass balance was correct. Being able to understand all the streams going into and coming out from the distillation process and being able to calculate those confidently was another extra benefit of taking the Diploma in Distilling.
The fact that I was able to produce this deliverable with a good level of accuracy was very well received by both my company and my client. Because of that, Blue Projects has been able to penetrate other sectors by adding this service to our offering”, Ruth proudly explains.
Praises, awards and carry on learning
There are many highlights in Ruth’s journey in the distilling sector. Her company acknowledgment is one of the most relevant. Her thirst for knowledge and innate tenacity also helped her to achieve the Simpson Malt and Briggs of Burton Awards in the same year for her fantastic marks in the Diploma in Distilling Modules 1 and 3.
“And the quaich that the Diploma candidates obtained when they complete the three modules. This is very special because my family's surname is Stenhouse and that's Scottish. I have another quaich that was given to me on my wedding day and my husband and I drink whisky from it. I have a very strong connection with the Scottish and the quaich”, she happily mentions.
And the next stage for Ruth?
“I'm looking now at the Master Brewer program. One has to keep on learning. It doesn't matter where you are in your career. The worst thing you can do is just say, “Okay, I've arrived”, because you haven't really. There are always new developments. It is always refreshing to combine my prior knowledge with new, bringing it all together to practically apply it. It’s also really important for me”.