Millions of people across the world celebrate Oktoberfest each year, a fall festival originated in Bavaria that celebrates beer, food and music. But what most people celebrating don’t realize is that beer production is one of the most basic applications of biotechnology. Some people even view beer production as the oldest form of biotech!
Beer is made from water, a starch source such as barley, brewer’s yeast and a flavoring such as hops. The starch in the barley must be converted to sugar by enzymes (which are activated when the barley is malted) then fermented (the brewer’s yeast metabolizes the sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide). Enzymes and microbes are two common tools used in industrial biotechnology.
Not only can biotechnology help produce beer, it can also improve it. Yeast plays a critical role in the beer-making process, and in most beers, yeast can account for up to a third of the final flavor. A number of companies and researchers are now modifying yeasts to create new, unique beers.
One such company is SouthYeast, which specializes in “bioprospecting,” producing specialty yeasts for craft brewers. Using biotechnology, the company engineers regional yeast strains that are then used in the fermentation process – adding unique local flavors to craft brews. Another research company, Alabama-based Leavandary, has modified a yeast strain to create green beer for St. Patrick’s Day, eliminating the need for synthetic green dye #3.
So as you celebrate Oktoberfest this year, lift your glass to the biotechnology that makes your beer possible!