A new discovery has unlocked the secret story of lager beer’s South American origins, and is letting scientists piece together the genetic history of the domesticated microbe that keeps lager cool. This final piece of the yeast’s genetic family tree could one day help brewers create custom-made designer brews with carefully selected characteristics.
The modern-day lager yeast is a hybrid, born from an ancient hookup between a Saccharomyces cerevisiae—a popular ingredient for brewers and bakers—and another yeast that Diego Libkind and his company have identified and named Sacchyromyces eubyanus. They published their study in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers surmise that at some time after the 16th century, S. eubayanus hitched a ride from South America to Europe with the traveling tradesmen, and fused with S. cerevisiae to create the lager yeast. Bavarian brewers discovered this hybrid and delighted to find that unlike ale yeasts, this species thrived under cold conditions. (This infographic has more on the difference between an ale and a lager.)
While the stowaway story makes for a fascinating tale, the discovery of the lager yeast's parentage has implications for brewers. Diego Libkind, the primary researcher on the study, is already tapping into some of these ideas. With funding from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET), an Argentinian government institution that funds scientific research, Libkind is working on collaborating with a local brewery to test the capabilities of other, non-lager S. eubayanus lines that didn’t make it into the lager hybrid.
"We're trying to see if we can generate a local project," Libkind tells Fast Company.
The original S. eubayanus-cerevisiae pairing was a lucky accident. But with several similar yeast strains with as yet undiscovered talents as brewers, Libkind plans to test other combinations of yeasts. "It's anyone's guess how good those products will be," Christopher Todd Hittinger, co-author on the paper, says.
He has a point. Lagers today have been crafted after years of fiddling around with the cultures and brewing conditions, so a novice yeast duo, starting from scratch, would probably need a good bit of tweaking before it created the right brew.
It’s going to be a while before you can order a flavored beer brewed with the yeast of your choosing, but it’s not such a far-fetched idea. "It's a little bit science fiction, but there aren't any gaping technological advances that would stand as obstacles in its path," Hittinger said. Yeasts are workhorses of genetic engineering research, and scientists have used the yeast genome as a template for scores of studies, routinely making changes to the genome and mapping the traits that result. (Though, admittedly, they weren’t all selecting for brewing talent.) The technology to work with the yeast genome exists today, and is not exorbitantly expensive, Hittinger said.
And today’s beers have seen stranger origins. Sam Calagione, the head of Dogfish Head breweries, (and #46 on Fast Company’s list of Most Creative People in Business), has made brews from things like chicory and bacteria-infected grapes, and once admitted to fine-tuning one of his brews by playing them the right kind of music.
[Image: Flickr user HeadCRasher]
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