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The Biotech of Beer

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
March 12, 2020

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! The international day intended to honor the eponymous patron saint of Ireland is now also regarded as a day to hang out with friends and drink beer! Many drink on St. Patrick’s Day because traditionally Catholics would lift lent restrictions on food and alcohol to celebrate—and so it became and remains a day of indulgence.

This St. Patrick’s Day, as you take your first swig, thank biotech. Beer is biotechnology in one of its simplest forms.

To make the alcohol, first you release the sugars from your grain of choice through soaking. Many companies like Dogfish, Blue Moon, and Stella Artois use wheat for some varieties of their beer. Then the sugars are added to hops and the two are brewed together. Then yeast is added to do its magic and begin the process of fermentation; this can take weeks. After that, the beer is flavored to taste and ready to drink.  

Photo from Northernbrewer.com

The use of yeast is an early application of biotech because yeast is a group of single-celled fungi that breaks down enzymes.

Through biotechnology, we can edit the genes in yeast to make it do what we want like ferment the starch and sugars from plants to make biofuels and renewable chemicals for biobased products and food ingredients.

Yeast is used in several products worldwide: bread, certain meats, and cheeses, but because there are more than 1,000 types of yeast, the species used is important based on what is being developed. In the case of beer, saccharomyces turns the sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Then, voila, beer!

Yeast is such a dynamic ingredient and can also be modified to help with the beer’s final flavor and color.

So this St. Patrick’s day (and every day you enjoy a beer) bottoms up to biotech!