With more breweries operating in the US now than at any time in its history, and amid an ever-increasing consumer appetite for diversity in craft beers, the industry is about to get a helping hand from the oldest and perhaps most traditional of ingredients. A new golden age of yeast is upon us.
Yeast has unwittingly been used by people for millennia as an essential ingredient in foods and beverages such as bread, wine, beer and cider. However, up until now we’ve been realizing only a fraction of yeast’s intrinsic potential.
In fact, it’s only in the last 150 years that we have even begun to understand yeast’s valuable biodiversity — although this hasn’t always been capitalized on, as evidenced by the fact that only a handful of commercial yeast strains are responsible for the vast majority of the beer produced globally.
During that time, these dominant strains have been gradually selected for easy-to-quantify and industrially advantageous traits: temperature tolerance, neutral flavor profiles, attenuation and flocculation, and ultimately the ability to consistently produce and deliver large quantities of beer. Unfortunately, this has often been at the expense of diversity.
Given yeast’s long-established position in the beverage industries, it’s easy to take this microbe for granted and assume it’s a simplistic ingredient. In fact, the opposite is true.
The impact yeast has is truly transformative — just think about the difference between wort and beer. It is ultimately yeast that is responsible for turning hopped wort into beer with all the power and subtlety, boldness and nuance we know it can have.
‘Less than 1% of commercially viable yeast strains are currently in production. While this might be desirable from an industrial efficiency viewpoint, it does limit the variety of end products that can be developed and produced commercially at any scale’
However, with yeast traditionally being pigeonholed as a workhorse ingredient — applied principally in large, commodity-type applications such as baking and brewing — it’s hardly surprising that less than 1% of commercially viable yeast strains are currently in production. While this might be desirable from an industrial efficiency viewpoint, it does limit the variety of the end products that can be developed and produced commercially at any scale.
That needn’t be the case. What we’ve failed to capitalize on fully to date is the enormous range of natural biodiversity and interesting traits inherent in the wider yeast population. Similar to barley or hop breeding programs recent improvements in yeast technology — particularly in the areas of classical breeding and directed evolution, in which natural diversity can be utilized to unlock and optimize traits of interest — have led to some truly remarkable advances in commercial strain development.
Correcting a desirable but otherwise malfunctioning trait through adaptive evolution is one such technical advance. Another involves introducing a new trait into an existing strain through breeding, all the while maintaining the background strain’s functional performance and strengths.
In fact, these classical techniques are now a preferred method of choice when it comes to complex or multiple traits (such as flavor and aroma). Advances in this area are being used to generate strains that brew as normal —or better yet produce enhanced flavor and aroma profiles — all the while offering clean labeling.
So, with all of the opportunity offered by applying new technology to classical yeast biology, what is the future of brewer’s yeast? The answer: better, exciting new functionality and traits. Given the ongoing need of craft breweries to address consumers’ insatiable desire for new flavors, the advances in strain development should be welcome news to brewmasters and their customers.
Indeed, the future can look forward to yeast not only as it is now, but also how it could be: delivering on its promise to open up a world of new tastes for the global craft brewing industry.
Cormac O’Cleirigh, Ph.D., is Chief Business Development Officer at Renaissance Bioscience, a global yeast technology company that develops yeast-based platform technologies to solve industrial efficiency and consumer health problems in the food, beverage, alcohol, biofuel and pharmaceutical industries. Bright Brewer’s Yeast is a wholly owned subsidiary of Renaissance that focuses on breeding, marketing and selling innovative brewer’s yeasts to brewmasters around the world to help them enhance their product flavor, quality and consistency. Prior to joining Renaissance, Dr. O’Cleirigh was Head of Business Development & Innovation for AB Mauri Global Bakery Ingredients. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org