Beer and Biotechnology, Celebrating @GooseIsland 25th Anniversary

May 19th is Goose Island's 25th anniversary brewing in Chicago. So I though it would be a good time to write a post that combines my work with my favorite pastime. No I am not just talking about the consumption of, I am talking about the brewing of beer. I have been an avid amateur brewer for years. Much to my wife's dismay I continue to collect and endlessly talk about beer, brewing, and the process within. It is after all, biotechnology, of the most delicious kind.

Traditional German Maibock

Beer is water, malted barley, and hops. The malt is the carbohydrate source, and the hops add flavour and act as a preservative. The beer purity act, Reinheitsgebot, decreed in Bavaria in 1516 is still observed by German breweries today and restricts brewers to these three ingredients. Another important ingredient in beer is yeast. The contribution of yeast to beer was not known to brewers in 1516, as the brewing vessels were open air, natural airborne yeast was responsible for fermentation.

Interesting side note, Reinheitsgebot came to be partially because the Bavarian citizens grew tired of substandard and often foul, sour beer, so standardized ingredients were set to improve the quality. And also in part to prevent price competition with bakers for wheat and rye. The restriction of grains to barley was meant to ensure the availability of sufficient amounts of affordable bread, as the more valuable wheat and rye were reserved for use by bakers.

I am not going to talk about the biotech process that creates beer. For that, here is a great overview of the ingredients, the process and the science behind brewing by Sam Adam's Brewing Manager Grant Wood:

I am going to talk about how biotech is improving beer.


The typical barley used in brewing is 2-row barley, in the US our domestic (Millers, Coors, Budweiser) uses 6-row and corn/rice. Barley is grown around the world and has been used for food and beer making since ancient times. Efforts to keep improving barley by conventional breeding, however, have been met with limited success, making it a good candidate for genetic engineering. Transgenic barley lines with immunity to a virus, resistance to fungal root rot, and improved brewing properties have been developed over the past several years. Now, field trials at the University of Giessen and the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany are testing some of these lines for potential unintended effects.

Rhizoctonia Resistance:

The agricultural trend of no-till is also popular with barley. While it leaves beneficial fungi undisturbed, it also makes a better environment for root rotting fungi. The pathogenic fungi Rhizoctonia solani and Rhizoctonia oryzae have been becoming more and more widespread in areas where no-till systems are in place, especially the northwest United States and southern Australia. One of the major problems with fungal root rot is that it can significantly reduce yield without causing any conspicuous above-ground damage. Scientists at the University of Washington in the USA reported in 2003 that they successfully inserted a chitinase gene from Trichoderma into the barley genome. The resulting plants had a high level of resistance to Rhizoctonia.

Barley for better beer making:

If you remember from the video above about the Malting Process. The longer the malting process, the more time enzymes have to produce sugar. But when the malting goes on for too long, the seedlings start using up the sugars for their own growth. That’s why the process is halted at the optimal point by drying out the sprouting grains. The heating process that kills the grain also deactivates the enzymes. Therefore, whatever starch and cell material is leftover when the grains are heated and dried cannot be used. Non-degraded endosperm cells can lead to problems for brewers including unwanted viscosity and clogged filters.

Modern biotechnology has already stepped in to address these issues. Genes for the enzymes amylase, which breaks down starch, and glucanase, which breaks down endosperm cell walls, have been spliced into microorganisms and are produced on a large scale. Most beer makers purchase enzyme supplements to optimise brewing.

But what if the barley’s own enzymes could remain active in spite of the heating process? It would make for better brewing without the need for enzyme supplements. This is exactly what researchers at the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen and at Washington State University in the US set out to do. They took glucanase genes from bacteria and identified the most heat stable forms. Then they engineered a heat stable glucanase gene and expressed it in barley. The resulting enzyme remained active after four hours of heating. Barley’s own glucanase enzymes are destroyed after only four minutes of heating.

Enhancing glucanase activity in barley also improves its quality as feed for livestock. When poultry are fed barley, they have poor growth rates. This is because poultry are deficient in glucanases and cannot fully break down endosperm cell walls. Feeding studies have shown that poultry fed genetically modified barley with heat stable glucanase outperformed poultry that were fed conventional barley.


Yeast is the most important ingredient in Beer. For years it was a naturally occurring phenominon that wild airborne yeast top fermenting yeast would find its way into the open fermentation chambers. As you could guess open fermentation chambers in the summer with wild yeast did not produce a very good product. In an effort to improve the quality of beer, in Germany (where else) they placed restrictions on the seasons that beer could be produced. Fermenting beer in the winter months killed off the top fermenting yeast leaving a different bottom fermenting yeast. This essentially lead to two strains of yeast used in beer production, and is the main difference between Ales and Lagers.

Ale yeasts are referred to as top-fermenting because much of the fermentation action takes place at the top of the fermenter, while lager yeasts would seem to prefer the bottom. While many of today's strains like to confound this generalization, there is one important difference, and that is temperature. Ale yeasts like warmer temperatures, going dormant below about 55°F (12°C), while lager yeasts will happily work at 40°F.


There is a lot of research being done on yeast in an effort to produce better strains. In general, the goal of biotechnology in yeast production is to reduce the time needed to ferment the beer, basically making the yeast more efficient. While also increasing positive natural fermentation bi-products like proteins that improve beer foam, and decreasing the amount of undesired bi-products like dialectyl.

There are a few companies that produce and actively research yeast for beer production, one of those companies is White Labs. The company was started by Chris White, who got a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at UCSD studying the yeast Pichia pastoris. Chris was also an avid home beer brewer and began to use his scientific expertise on brewers yeast. I have used White Labs yeast before in my brewing, the picture on the right is a Hefeweizen using White Labs WLP380 HEFEWEIZEN IV ALE YEAST.

Alamo Yeast, is a new company, they just launched. I have not used their yeast yet, but look forward to experimenting with it.

“Alamo Yeast Labs is the first of its kind in Texas,” says Sena Rayos, President of Alamo Yeast Labs. “It is a biotech company that services the craft beer industry by providing yeast products, microbiological services, and beverage analysis. We strive to have a real, personal connection with all of our customers and we hope to stand out by truly helping everyone who makes beer.”

Mrs. Rayos discovered the idea for her company while working for a biotech company in Austin, Texas that was across the street from a popular Texas brewery. Through her observations, she soon realized the importance of microbiology to the brewing process, and decided to launch a company dedicated to the sciences of brewing beer.

“Brewing encompasses many aspects of science: biochemistry, microbiology, engineering, chemistry,” states Mrs. Rayos. “By understanding the science behind brewing, I think many people will appreciate all the hard work and thinking that goes behind making that bottle of craft beer.”

The benefits of biotechnology in the beer industry is the same as it is with other food and agricultural industries. It hold the promise to increase efficiency, reduce pollution, and increase the nutritional content of the crop. Currently, the use of GM barley is not allowed in the producing of beer in Germany (the beer motherland), no real surprise there. But GM barley, corn and rice does hold promise for beer produced outside of Germany.This is a conversation, not an editorial. Did I forget something, get it wrong or do you agree? Please Comment, Like, Re-Tweet and Share


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