Would You Drink a GMO Beer?

Synthetic yeast may be a part of your favorite beverage one day. Bottoms up?

Aug 17, 2014 at 10:52AM

Earlier this year, the journal Science published the work of Johns Hopkins University researchers who are creating synthetic yeast. The goal of the project is to genetically engineer an entire yeast organism -- all 16 chromosomes -- from scratch. This designer yeast could revolutionize biofuels and America's favorite consumer goods staple: beer .

Biofuels are important, but the beer angle is interesting. Americans do not have warm and fuzzy feelings for genetically modified anything right now, but could beer made with synthetic yeast be the first step toward acceptance? And just how could synthetic yeast change beer anyway?

New yeast, new beer
There are many steps to brewing a delicious beer, as the chart below illustrates:

Beer Flow Chart

Yeast is added after cooling to begin the fermentation process. Once that step is complete, the yeast is filtered out and the beer is packaged for sale. Even in the newly popular unfiltered beers the yeast settles at the bottom of the tank and very little is actually consumed by beer drinkers. 

The alcohol in beer is the byproduct of yeast consuming the sugar in the beer mixture, but yeast is also the deciding factor in determining the style of brew. Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast, while lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast. 

In other words, tweaking this core ingredient could bring radical change to America's most popular adult beverage. The website PolicyMic dared to suggest that brews made with synthetic yeast might taste like no beer you've ever had before.

We are likely many years out from scaling synthetic yeast for commercial purposes, but as that reality draws nearer ask yourself this: Would you drink a beer created with genetically modified yeast? In other words, would you drink a GMO beer?

Chances are, you probably already do.

New hops, new beer
Hops are another key ingredient in beer, and many of the most popular beer styles, notably American Pale Ales and IPAs, rely almost entirely on their hop profiles for flavor. For example, Sierra Nevada's ubiquitous Pale Ale leans heavy on Cascade hops, while Bell's popular Two Hearted Ale owes its flavor to the Centennial hop. These are well-known craft beers. Less well known is that humans had been drinking beer for about 5,000 years before either of these hop varieties existed.

Developed by USDA scientists in 1956, Cascade hops were released for cultivation in 1972. Centennial is a much younger variety, bred in 1974 and released to the public in 1990. There are millennials who have been around longer than some of the hops used to brew your favorite beer, which very possibly only exists because of scientific tinkering and genetic modification.

The USDA's Agricultural Research Service Hop Breeding and Genetics program continues to study, evaluate, and tweak hop varietals for numerous agricultural purposes, as do private organizations such as Indie Hops. One of the most recent iterations put forth by the USDA is the Mt. Rainier hop. The power of science made this hop resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Given that it has an aroma with "licorice notes and a hint of citrus," it may also spurn new creations at breweries across the country.

Science guarantees that we will continue to see new hops show up in our brews for years to come; whether that makes it easier for synthetic yeast to be accepted by the American public remains to be seen, but the precedent certainly exists. 

Food for thought
The question of GMO beer presents an interesting case for investors as the debate over genetically modified food reaches a boiling point. Will the GMO stigma persist, and if it does, will it keep synthetic yeast away from commercially produced beer? If beer drinkers are willing to consume a brew made with synthetic yeast, will it usher in acceptance for other biotech-derived foods like milk, meat, and cheese?  No one can say for sure, but change is brewing.

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