The coking process produces great volumes of wastewater contaminated with pollutants such as cyanides, sulfides and phenolics. Chemical and physical remediation of this wastewater removes the majority of these pollutants; however, these processes do not remove phenol and thiocyanate. The removal of these compounds has been effected during bioremediation with activated sludge containing a complex microbial community. In this investigation we acquired activated sludge from an industrial bioreactor capable of degrading phenol. The sludge was incubated in our laboratory and monitored for its ability to degrade phenol over a 48 h period. Multiple samples were taken across the time-course and analysed by Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy. FT-IR was used as a whole-organism fingerprinting approach to monitor biochemical changes in the bacterial cells during the degradation of phenol. We also investigated the ability of the activated sludge to degrade phenol following extended periods (2–131 days) of storage in the absence of phenol. A reduction was observed in the ability of the microbial community to degrade phenol and this was accompanied by a detectable biochemical change in the FT-IR fingerprint related to cellular phenotype of the microbial community. In the absence of phenol a decrease in thiocyanate vibrations was observed, reflecting the ability of these communities to degrade this substrate. Actively degrading communities showed an additional new band in their FT-IR spectra that could be attributed to phenol degradation products from the ortho- and meta-cleavage of the aromatic ring. This study demonstrates that FT-IR spectroscopy when combined with chemometric analysis is a very powerful high throughput screening approach for assessing the metabolic capability of complex microbial communities.