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Industry divided on genetically modified beer

The use of genetically modified (GM) yeast being used more widely in brewing is being hotly debated within the global beer sector.

Yeast, which is fundamental to brewing and turns the sugars provided by malt barley and other grains into alcohol, while also adding its own flavours, can be genetically modified — a trend which is already happening widely in the US.

Despite the brewing yeast industry’s advancement within the sector and insistence that the developments are simply about trying to improve the taste of beer, the topic has become hugely divisive, according to recent reports from the BBC.

In a deep dive into the sector, Berkeley Yeast, based in California, which creates genetically-modified (GM) yeast for use in brewing by essentially adapting the DNA of yeast strains, has indicated that it can remove or add certain genes based upon flavour preference.

Speaking about the growing opportunities, Berkeley Yeast co-founder and chief executive Charles Denby said: “We are interested in toggling up the desirable flavours, and toggling down not-so-great flavours, and generating new flavours.”

One of the products from Berkley Yeast includes its Tropics yeast, which has been created to provide the taste of passionfruit and guava. According to Denby, this yeast is better than adding adjuncts such as artificial flavours, plus, he claimed, it is also more reliable for brewers than requiring a constant supply of certain fruits.

Denby pointed out: “It’s more consistent to have bioengineered yeast” and noted how “it reduces the reliance on additional ingredients to make a peach orchard flourish month-after-month, year-after-year,” urging people to “think of all the water and fertiliser that would go into that crop.”

Denby also revealed that another of Berkley Yeast’s GM strains is capable of assisting brewers to create Belgian-style sour beers in a fraction of the time it would normally take.

In the US, which has more relaxed regulations on GM foods than many other countries, which constrain GM use in the food and drink industry by legislation, there are opportunities for brewers to experiment further, However, in the UK, GM foods can be authorised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), if they are judged “not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers, [and] not to have less nutritional value than their non-GM counterpart” and all products made using them must be labelled as coming from a GM source.

Another GM yeast business in the US, based in Chicago, Omega Yeast Labs, recently revealed that it had discovered the specific gene that helps cause hazy beer – giving the craft beer industry an assurance of its resulting brew offering up popular murk trends which has been steadily climbing in popularity stateside.

Ian Godwin, a professor of crop science and director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, said that US brewers using gene-edited yeast in their products is “a secret everyone [in the industry] knows about”.

Lab director Richard Preiss from Ontario-based Escarpment Labs, which provides more than 300 breweries with yeast, but does not use GM strains, said: “In the US, you can really do what you want,” and explained how “you can take, for example, the genome from basil, and plug it into yeast, and get to market fast with a flavoured beer”.

Speaking about the fact that the idea of it sounded slightly more dramatic than it really was in reality, Heineken’s Lagunitas Brewing’s brewmaster Jeremy Marshall assured: “There might be hesitation or fear from those concerned about the association of GM foods to companies like Monsanto and it could be scary to a lot of people. But they have to realise that the yeast gets filtered out, and nothing genetically modified gets into the final product, just flavour compounds, which are little bags of enzymes.”

Whereas, opposed to the use of GM yeast, at Carlsberg, there is a strict no-GM policy in the development of its brewing ingredients. Instead, the Dutch beer giant revealed that it has chosen to future-proof its beers through cross-pollination – a method that has been used for years – which assists in looking at breeding new varieties of barley and hops that can tolerate heat or drought.

Carlsberg Group’s vice president Birgitte Skadhauge, who heads up the Carlsberg Research Laboratory admitted, however, that the process was not a simple one and really, it takes a lot of dedication. She said: “It’s like if you have a huge metal detector looking for gold pieces in a massive mountain.”

Despite the nature of such divided opinions over the topic of ‘best ingredients’ and the next advancements in beer and brewing, there is light and, indeed, a future at the end of the GM yeast tunnel.

As Marshall noted: “The holy grail of what yeast-makers like Berkeley want to do is to engineer an IPA that stays fresh forever, tastes consistent everywhere you go, and its hops never go old. And I think those kinds of manufacturers are well on their way to that goal.”

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