Brewmasters Turn To DNA Analysis To Make Better Beer
Beer makers adopt a high tech solution to one of brewing’s oldest problems.
image via (cc) flickr user thomashawk
When it comes to beer, I don’t have a particularly discerning palate. “Cold” and “not too much foam” are pretty much my only criteria for whether or not I’ll drink a pint (and even then I’m pretty flexible). But, at the end of the day, I’d like to think I have enough sense of taste to know the difference between “good” beer and “bad,” even if I couldn’t necessarily tell you why.
For professional brewmasters, though, the difference between good and bad beer is what makes or breaks a company. That’s why a number of forward thinking breweries are making the leap from basic fermentation chemistry to advanced DNA analysis to ensure their suds are suitable for sipping. Because when it comes to beer, it’s not just the big problems that can spoil a batch, it’s the small ones. The microscopic ones. Bacteria, specifically two kinds: Pediococcus and Lactobacillus, both of which can completely skunk certain types of beer if they get into the brewing mix.
image via (cc) flickr user placbo
This week, The Verge’s Josh Lowensohn writes about his visit to Russian River Brewing Company, an award-winning craft brewery out of California, which has begun using DNA testing to determine whether a particular quantity of beer has been contaminated with the aforementioned bacteria. That, explains Lowensohn, is a very real threat for Russian River because, beyond the general persistent threat of bacterial contamination due to general growth in-and-around brewing ingredients, the company also makes a number of Sour Beers—ones that are intentionally bitter or acidic, such as lambics and gueuzes—which actually require the use of Pediococcus and Lactobacillus in the fermentation process. In other words, the thing which could completely ruin one batch of beers, is a sin qua non for another.
Brewers have long been on the look out for bacterial contamination ruining their wares. As Smithsonian.com points out, the current method for testing involves using an algae-derived substance called agar to determine whether a sample from a batch hosts the bacteria. It’s a fairly time-consuming process, because once bacteria is identified, brewers must then go back to their equipment, check for the point of contamination, isolate it, clean it, and only then resume brewing. Days can be lost simply trying to get things back on track. And when days are lost, so is money.
That’s why Russian River has begun using BrewPAL, a DNA scanner designed to specifically identify traces of Pediococcus and Lactobacillus at various points along a beer’s creation process in just a matter of hours. Explains Lowensohn:
The idea behind the BrewPal is that you can simply get a yes or no for if the bacteria is there, much like an over-the-counter test for pregnancy. The test uses a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR for short. The process was developed in the early 1980s, and effectively works as a photocopier for DNA, amplifying a relatively small sample into something that can be more accurately measured. It’s been used in everything from criminal forensics and paternity tests to helping enforce overfishing tied to black caviar.
The system, he points out, is just one of a host of new DNA testers—some more sensitive but requiring more testing time, and others the opposite—hitting the brewery circuit as beer makers look for easier, cheaper, and more efficient ways to ensure their product is market ready. This means that even if you’ve got an unsophisticated beer palate like mine, you’re more likely to enjoy quality brew, without fear of sipping on an accidental bad batch.
Here’s hoping the next scientific advance in the world of beer is a cure for hangovers.