Dr. John Morrissey from University College Cork (UCC) told BeverageDaily.com that was unable to name the brewer for reasons of confidentiality, but that his team’s research – now at proof of concept stage – that could see tastier, low alcohol ale and lager hit retail shelves within three to five years.
Historically, some low alcohol beers had an “insipid” taste due to ingredient dilution, Morrissey said, while others had alcohol removed after brewing, a costly process that also risked harming product flavour.
Outlining his research with Rob Karreman and other UCC colleagues, Morrissey said: “What we want to do is take the same starting ingredients, follow the same process, and end up with a product that has less ethanol, but everything else is the same."
He added: “The hypothesis of the project was that when we look at different yeasts, some are capable of fermenting sugars and making a lot of ethanol, whereas others that are broadly very similar don’t make ethanol.
“That is due to differences in the metabolism of closely related yeasts. We have genome sequences of these yeasts, so were able to look at all the genes involved in metabolism and run a computer algorithm to identify what steps – given that yeasts have the same genes – make them function differently."
Looking at gene sequences allowed the team to discover which genes were responsible for difference in metabolism, Morrissey said. “We identified some genes that appeared important to us, and we then swapped genes from non-producing yeast into producing yeast.
"The idea is that if we could just affect that aspect of the yeast metabolism, then they would then take sugars in, process it through the normal pathway. But rather than converting all that sugar into ethanol, some of it wouldn’t go into ethanol, but just go into normal cellular growth."
This method avoided past problems with this type of strategy, Morrissey said, where you unbalanced the metabolism, where this can lead to “undesirable off flavours developing”.
Niche market potential?
Morrissey said the team had engineered a viable laboratory strain of ale yeast to make beer, but since the proof of concept strain was genetically engineered, Morrissey said, it was not viable for production on a commercial level.
“But demonstrating how we can modify the metabolism to get this different end result, it’s possible to identify the step in the yeast that can be modified. There are other non-GM ways of doing that," he said.
The team needed to recreate the effect in a commercial brewing strain, he added, and then to “engineer out the GM part of it”, which he was confident could be done.
As for the potential of low alcohol beer, Morrissey said: “A big brewer would be unlikely to risk their brand with production en masse of beers like this, and it would perhaps be more of a niche market, and probably looking at something like a bottled beer market – then seeing how it develops.
“I think there’s a genuine market for it from talking to people in the brewing industry, as there is societal pressure and political pressure influencing them, I think.
“Here in Ireland the pubs are quite conservative – with five or six beers on drafts – but the beers that are being bought in the off-trade are much more diverse now.
“My sense, at least, is that people are looking for different kinds of beers, and growth in the market here seems to be tied to micro-brewed and craft beers, English ales.”