As children, Ray Parrish ’91 and his brother were obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records, devouring the new, hardbound volume they unwrapped each Christmas morning. It was a lifelong dream, Parrish said, to see their own names among the recordholders.
Fast-forward to last December, when Parrish, now co-owner of the firefighter-founded Maltese Brewing Company in Fredericksburg, decided to look up the world record for spiciest beer. When he found none, he contacted Guinness – started in the early 1950s by Guinness Breweries – about establishing one.
That set off a chain reaction with Parrish, a former physics major at Mary Washington, reaching out to his alma mater, where he connected with another alum, Sarah Smith ’12. Now a visiting professor in the recently merged Department of Chemistry and Physics, Smith looped in junior biochemistry major Valerie Ebenki.
The trio’s quest? To determine the heat content of Maltese’s Signal One 2.0 beer, a pineapple IPA infused with 500 Carolina Reaper chilies, the world’s hottest pepper. The professor and student both said they came to Mary Washington for precisely these kinds of experiences – not necessarily attempts at world records, but high-impact learning opportunities where faculty and students work closely on endeavors.
“Being able to participate in real world research, proposed by an alum who is now working in the local community, is a fantastic opportunity,” said Ebenki, who’s applying skills from Smith’s analytical chemistry courses – literature searches, data collection, results interpretation – to this project.
Smith and Ebenki are determining the concentration of capsaicin, a chemical that makes peppers spicy and pungent, and its “twin sibling,” dihydrocapsaicin. They’re employing the Scoville Heat index, a unit of measurement that calculates chili heat. Working in the Jepson Science Center labs, Ebenki said they’re using a ventilator hood and protective wear to guard against the highly irritant chemicals.
Though the original Signal One was never analyzed, Parrish estimates the new 2.0 version is roughly 70 percent hotter than its predecessor. Aside from these experiments, beer itself is a “veritable chemical soup,” he said. Maltese’s head brewer must balance sugar conversion, yeast nutrition, acid utilization “and many other chemical processes just to fill your pints and growlers.”
Enrolled in UMW’s pre-medical track, Ebenki said this experience will be beneficial in her planned career as a family physician. “In my research, I discovered that capsaicin is a compound in pain relievers for muscle and joint creams that are prescribed to patients.”
Parrish said he’s impressed, both with Ebenki’s “thirst for knowledge and success” and how quickly Smith turned his simple request into a full-fledged learning opportunity.
“It illustrates UMW’s commitment to teaching and guiding students into interesting, challenging and experience-building ventures,” said Parrish, whose own professors encouraged him to pursue his passions, leading him to his current vocation.
After they submit their findings to Guinness in mid-March, the record-seekers will have to wait several months for the results and, hopefully, an even greater boost in business.
Despite the pandemic, this past year has been Maltese’s most successful in its six-year history. Parrish credits the support of the local brewing community and loyal customers, many of whom have already attempted the Signal One 2.0 challenge: Down 10 ounces in 10 minutes. Many have tried. Few have succeeded.
Regardless of outcome, Parrish plans to toast their efforts at the end of the spring semester. Ebenki doesn’t drink beer and has yet to sample the hot stuff, but – win or lose – he promises to have an ice cold root beer waiting for her.