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‘A chemist by nature, not just by trade’ - an interview with AXIO beverage schemes expert Wayne Gaunt

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From asking his parents for chemistry sets as a boy to overseeing more than 35 schemes for LGC AXIO Proficiency Testing, Wayne Gaunt is a natural born chemist. Here, we talk to him about how beverages has become one of the world’s most innovative and fastest-changing business sectors, why he’s constantly thinking about brewing - and the reasons he loves his job. 

How did you get into PT?

From as young as I can remember, each Christmas I used to always ask for a chemistry set, as I was obsessed with how things worked.

I suppose I had a bit of natural flair for chemistry and was lucky enough to start my career working for the Public Analysts in Manchester. This was a great place to start my career and over eight or nine years they encouraged me academically as I progressed through my A-Levels, HNC, and finally degree. Eventually I earned the accolade of Chartered Chemist.

At that point I had the option to go down the technical route and train to be a Public Analyst. However, my natural inclination was always to work with people, and I feel I am more of a problem solver than a specialist. By pure chance, at this time there was a laboratory that carried out proficiency testing in the town where I worked. Initially, I was the only chemist on site, but by the time we merged with LGC, we had a number of different accredited schemes, most of which were focused on food testing. I’ve been with LGC 21 years this year. 

So you manage AXIO’s beverage schemes - but do you like a tipple yourself?

I'm not a massive drinker, but the more I work with the various industries, the more I'm aware of the breadth of products that is out there. If pushed I suppose I'm an ale drinker, but my tastes have changed over the years, depending on the new products that are available. Currently I’m quite partial to American IPAs, due to the hoppy flavour, but I'm also quite a fan of whiskies. This particular love actually came about late one evening, when socialising with one of the advisors on our MAPS malt scheme. Somebody asked me if I would like to join them with a whisky, and that was it. Now I'm mildly obsessed with them, and that chilled mentality you get sitting at the end of an evening, sipping your drink of choice while mulling over the day. I suspect that this is starting to rub off on my grown up children as well, as two of them are now qualified bartenders and cocktail makers, who periodically come to me saying: “Now, I've come across this particular type of beer that you might like,” or “Here's another new whisky. Have you tried this one?” 

Do you find yourself thinking about processes and product quality when you enjoy a drink?

Yes. I can't help but walk around the local supermarket, picking up everything that catches my attention and checking the labelling, analysing the differences between product types and categorising them in my head. If I'm not doing it for my own benefit, I'm doing it because it might be something interesting that we can use as a test material within one of the AXIO PT schemes. 

Can you tell us about some of the beverage schemes you manage?

For non-alcoholic beverages, we offer a scheme (QBS) which focuses on both quality testing and legislative compliance in everything from orange juices, through to carbonated drinks and ready-to-drink products. We also offer a sugar proficiency scheme (SUPS) which looks at the raw materials used to make such products, and again we cover a diverse range of analytes and product types related to sugar testing.

Personally, I’m responsible for a variety of schemes which cover analysis for the alcoholic beverage industries. These include MAPS (malt and barley), BAPS (brewing) and DAPS (non-brewing alcoholic product testing). BAPS is specifically designed for the brewing industry, and is over 30 years old, so it's very well established. We have a lot of very good contacts within this industry, around the world - ranging from the huge global companies that you'll be more than familiar with, down to the niche micro-breweries and the specialist analysis they require.

The DAPS scheme originally just focused on distilled products - specifically whisky. But over the years this has expanded to cover everything from whisky to clear spirits such as gin and vodka, to ciders and different types of wines. Within DAPS, there are also ready to drink samples, liqueurs, cream liqueurs and everything in between. Again, we work very closely with both whisky specialists, and key specialists who advise us on any developments in the wine and cider industries.

MAPS stands for Malt Analytes Proficiency Scheme - malt being the raw barley grains that have been through a steeping, germination and drying process so that it can be used to produce alcohol. This raw material is essential in the production of brewed and distilled products.

So, similar to the non-alcoholic proficiency products we offer, we're working with the industries from the grains on the farms, through the initial raw material production, through to the manufacturers who produce the drinks that you see on the shelves every day. That’s why we say our schemes cover everything from grain to glass. 

What about the niche analytes and services AXIO provides?

We are offering more specialised samples than ever before to participants who undertake more specialised type of analysis. For example, within MAPS, we offer routine testing for what we call light, base malts. But, periodically, we also offer things for peated malts used in smoky whiskies, a black malt sample, and crystal malts.

We also offer samples which enable participants to assess their determination of contaminants  such as mycotoxin and NDMA, which are toxic byproducts that should not be present at significant concentrations. We are also able to offer bespoke products to assess other more unusual analytes if these are required, so that the companies who work with us can then be certain they are achieving the highest levels of quality inside their testing laboratories. 

Do you have a favourite scheme?

That’s a difficult one as they are all interesting in their own right. However, if I had to choose, it would probably be the MAPS scheme, because I find raw materials particularly interesting. With a final product, like a typical bottle of beer, most manufacturers know exactly what raw materials they are working with, and they would adjust the production process accordingly. But raw materials are reliant on the growing season they had, so it could have been particularly dry or wet one year, and this can seriously affect the quality of the grain grown. Those who work in this area need to account for this when they are processing the grains, in order to be able to produce suitable final products that can then be used by the brewing and distilling industries. This is a very specialised and complicated area to work in and the people who work in this field understand the nuances of these changes, so it's almost an art mixed with a science. 

How do you make sure that the established AXIO schemes are moving with the times?

We're constantly in communication with specialists in various industries. So, if there is a sudden need for a new type of product, or there is interest in a particular analyte, then we will focus on that. For example, the malting industry has traditionally been based on barley, but the more global the scheme becomes, the more it’s apparent that other cereals are also being used. This is why we recently introduced a malted wheat proficiency product, which compliments the others already available.

In order to become a completely worldwide PT provider, we try to understand what different international markets really need, how they approach the testing, and how they are ensuring their products are compliant and of the highest quality. Currently we’re running a project that tries to match up the European methods with those used in the US, to make the scheme truly applicable for our participants. We currently distribute samples to over 180 countries across every continent.

The brewing sector is particularly fast-moving - are you enjoying the challenge?

It’s always current! I think a few years ago people just bought a product they were familiar with and took it for granted. But these days, we’re much more aware of how things are made - and more interested in them being produced ethically. More companies are also trying to be cutting edge and produce unusual products, or to push the boundaries with new tastes and aromas. Regardless of these changes, though, manufacturers still need to continue to produce compliant and high quality products for consumption - and LGC has a wide scope of samples to enable laboratories who need to test these products to confirm their testing is as accurate as possible. But the brewers trying to shake up the industry is a great thing for us, too. We should be challenged (and challenging) all the time, testing new things where required and developing our schemes to match the needs of our customers.

As I mentioned initially, I would say that I am a chemist by nature rather than just by trade, and I suspect that a lot of other people who work here would agree. We are intrinsically people who are interested in anything that's happening or changing around us, and we are the ones always asking: “How do things work?” Or, if there's a problem, “How do we solve it?”

It’s been a long but interesting journey, so far, and currently I’m responsible for 35 different schemes - from environmental work to food, and consumer products to other very specialised areas of analysis. I've now been working in proficiency testing for 20 something years and I still find every single day interesting, so I couldn't ask for more. 

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