Hoppy Beer Without The Hops?

Written By Dean Zarbaugh

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Photo Credit: Dean Zarbaugh

Brewing beer has always been a blend of art and science. Well it’s actually a blend of grain, yeast, water, and hops. But what if you didn’t need the hops to make a hoppy flavored beer?

Biologists at UC Berkeley have done just that by performing some Jurassic Park-esque experiments on beer, and the results are pretty interesting. According to a study by Dr. Charles Denby and doctoral candidate Rachel Li that was published in Nature Communications, biologists have created a hoppy tasting beer without the hops. The goal of the study was to find a more sustainable way to produce beer. As it stands now, growing hops consumes a lot of water. That’s where science comes in. By using a gene-editing tool, biologists were able to create new strains of brewer’s yeast that could mimic the hoppy flavor found in everyone’s favorite IPAs. According to Berkeley News, to do this,

Denby and Li inserted four new genes plus the promoters that regulate the genes into industrial brewer’s yeast. Two of the genes – linalool synthase and geraniol synthase – code for enzymes that produce flavor components common to many plants. In this instance, the genes came from mint and basil, respectively.

[…]

The two other genes were from yeast and boosted the production of precursor molecules needed to make linalool and geraniol, the hoppy flavor components. All of the genetic components – the Cas9 gene, four yeast, mint and basil genes and promoters – were inserted into yeast on a tiny circular DNA plasmid. The yeast cells then translated the Cas9 gene into the Cas9 proteins, which cut the yeast DNA at specific points. Yeast repair enzymes then spliced in the four genes plus promoters.

I don’t understand most of that because back in school, I never thought science would be so important to my future. Joke’s on me. After everything was said and done, the duo asked Charles Bamforth, a malting and brewing expert at UC Davis to brew a beer with the strains they developed. He also brewed a batch with the usual hops and yeast and gave both beers to the innovations manager at Lagunitas, Bryan Donaldson to conduct a blind taste test using 27 brewery employees. The results? Employees described the beer made from the engineered strains as tasting more hoppy than a traditionally brewed beer made with regular yeast and hops. Pretty impressive work if you ask me.

Like I said, this is all way above my head, but I’m fascinated by it. It’s amazing what we can do these days at a microscopic level, and how it affects what we eat and drink. If only I hadn’t given up on science to become a writer! But back to the topic at hand. Thanks to this study, we now know that making a more sustainable beer is possible. Who knows what else this could lead to? We could be on the verge of an entirely new sub-section of craft beer making. Rather than experimenting with traditional brewing methods, brewers instead work to craft the beer’s hop flavor at a microscopic level, leading to dozens, if not hundreds of new flavors. You could even blend hops and the new strains together! Could you imagine the flavors of a super hop-forward IPA that has both hops and hoppy yeast? The possibilities are endless!

I think in the long run this is going to be quite beneficial to the craft beer industry. Around 2013, a hop shortage struck the United States that lasted for a couple years. Things are now finally turning around the lately to the point of having a bit of a hop surplus, but there is always that lingering fear that history could repeat itself. We can’t control the climate (despite what some might say) so if conditions turn against hop growing, this could help brewers cushion the blow.

The craft beer industry has always been on the leading edge of experimenting with beer, testing its limits. Thanks to this study, we are at the beginning of a whole wave of new styles and flavors. I for one am looking forward to seeing what’s to come.

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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