New & Noteworthy

Finally Great Tasting, Low Alcohol Beer

February 17, 2012

A lab engineered strain of yeast may make low alcohol, great tasting beer a reality.

Let’s face it: low alcohol beer just doesn’t taste that great.  This is because the alcohol is either diluted or removed chemically after fermentation.  Both methods wreak havoc with a beer’s flavor.

Dr. John Morrissey of University College Cork is trying to change this.  His lab is working to generate a strain of yeast that turns some but not all of its sugar into alcohol.  That way the beer process is the same, just with less alcohol at the end.

This is different from stopping fermentation early.  In that case there are still sugars in the final product which ruin a beer’s taste even more than removing the alcohol!  Here the same amount of sugars are used up, it is just that only part of that energy has gone into making the alcohol.  Same sugar content, less alcohol.

Although we don’t have all the details because of intellectual property issues, what we do know is that he compared the genomes of yeast species that make a lot of alcohol and those that don’t.  In an email he stated that he focused on genes that would affect carbon metabolism without perturbing redox balance in a significant way.  Presumably he then swapped the appropriate genes between strains and created his low alcohol strain.

This is not only a godsend for low alcohol beer, but it may be useful for other fermentation processes as well.  For example, maybe something similar can be done for low or no alcohol wines which, apparently, are even less tasty than low alcohol beer.  Designated drivers everywhere will be thanking Dr. Morrissey profusely if he can make decent tasting, low alcohol drinks a reality.

And apparently it isn’t just designated drivers that want this stuff.  Judging by recent upticks in sales of the relatively low quality low alcohol beers currently on the market, there is definitely a market out there for such beverages.  A cool science project, decent low alcohol beer and nice profits to boot!  Who could ask for more? 

How beer is made, from Modern Marvels, www.history.com

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics