These new GMO yeasts create great hop flavors without the additional water and energy usually required.

By Mike Pomranz
August 06, 2019
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Talking about the potential benefits of a scientific breakthrough is one thing, but tasting it in action is another. Saying you can use science to make better plant-based meat is interesting, but it’s nothing compared to the experience of actually biting into an Impossible Burger. Last year we wrote about researchers at U.C. Berkeley who were working on genetically engineering yeast to result in a beer with more hop flavor without adding any additional hops. Now, you can actually drink beer made with one of these yeasts at all three Drake’s Brewing locations in California.

Weird Science – as the new beer is appropriately called – is a 5.2-percent ABV pale ale described by Drake’s as “a very basic brew, meant to highlight the terpene profile of the genetically engineered High Sierra yeast strain created by Berkeley Brewing Science (BBS)” (which is the company launched by those aforementioned researchers). As such, the only ingredients are Warrior hops (which are used early in the boil exclusively for bitterness), two-row malt, and the BBS yeast. The unique ale officially debuted on July 25 with the researchers standing by to answer questions.

Though BBS yeasts have apparently been used by a number of breweries, especially around the Bay Area, Brewmaster John Gillooly says that Drake’s may be the first to address the issue so head-on. “[Other brewers] have been very cagy in their language. We’re the first people to really work directly with the lab to say this is something we’re doing, that this is a genetically-engineered product,” he told me. “There are people out there who have issues with GMOs, and I figured I’d rather just get in front of it and communicate it…. And it just was neat. It’s a fun thing they’re doing. These guys deserve credit.”

But why bother genetically engineering yeast to create hop-like flavors when hops already exist? Gillooly addressed this on the brewery’s website. “The original intent of BBS was to replace hop-derived aromatics with yeast-derived aromatics, so brewers can scale back their hop usage for more sustainable brewing. Hops require a lot of energy and water to grow, around 23 pints of water for every pint of beer produced!” he explained. However, he then added that these unique yeasts could also simply serve as an additional tool in their brewing toolbox. “At Drake’s, we see this type of yeast as a compliment to hops, or another ingredient that puts flavor in the customers’ glass.”

Specifically, Gillooly says that Weird Science offers flavors not always found elsewhere. “High Sierra was the latest yeast they were working on and, at that time, the working name was terpene stack because it had so many different flavor elements kind of piled up into it. And it was just really interesting,” he said. “It’s got ginger and spruce. Frankly, notes that you don’t normally smell in hops.” Moving forward, Drake’s plans to combine these yeasts with actual hops to help push the boundaries of where flavors can go. In fact, a beer brewed in collaboration with HenHouse Brewing called Steroid Era that uses High Sierra yeast along with extensive dry-hopping is set to be released next week.

Of course, if you do have problems with GMOs, none of this might be up your alley, but you don’t need to abandon Drake’s entirely. “It has not escaped our attention that some people are uncomfortable with the genetic manipulation of organisms,” Gillooly continued on the brewery website. “Please note that the yeast from Berkeley Brewing Science will be isolated from our other beers. Also, beers using this yeast will be clearly marked in our tasting rooms and restaurants.” Whichever you prefer, we can't deny that science has expanded the beer universe in ways that surprise us every day.

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