Scientists are using modern genetic technology to breed yeast strains that promote the best brewing characteristics -- in the quest for the perfect beer. Matthew Stock reports.
Another round of drinks... but these beers aren't for drinking. Twice a week these scientists in Belgium partake in a blind tasting of about 8 different beers. With each sip and sniff they're analysing the subtitle differences between beverages. SOUNDBITE (English) KEVIN VERSTREPEN, PROFESSOR OF GENETICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN/VIB CENTER FOR MICROBIOLOGY, SAYING: "It's pretty technical tasting - the idea is not to get drunk. To really figure out what chemicals are in there, how the taste is and really compare it. And it's really quite difficult to do a scientific, almost mathematical tasting." They're working to characterise some 250 Belgian beers, and build a 'scientific map' of beer to help drinkers select their next tipple. But a drinker's database isn't the only focus for these self-proclaimed 'beer geeks' - they're also using genetics to make better beer. Brewers in centuries past re-used the best yeast over and over again for their beer, even though they had no knowledge of genetics. It's the same principle here - only on a much larger scale. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KEVIN VERSTREPEN, PROFESSOR OF GENETICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN/VIB CENTER FOR MICROBIOLOGY, SAYING: "We're, for example, using robots to cross different yeast like farmers have been doing with cattle and livestock for centuries; we're now doing the same with yeast on a massive scale, making millions of new strains or variants of yeast and testing which ones are the better ones." Well-known brewers are already working with the team here to tweak the formula for their beers to, say, eliminate a particular aroma or aftertaste. They currently have around 30,000 new strains of yeast, some of which are genetically modified. While GM beer isn't a popular idea - these particular yeast strains could have other benefits. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KEVIN VERSTREPEN, PROFESSOR OF GENETICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN/VIB CENTER FOR MICROBIOLOGY, SAYING: "In the bio-fuel industry or the pharmaceutical industry genetic modification is a great way to make yeast produce certain chemicals, certain medicines." There's plenty more work - and beer - to keep the researchers busy. But with no hiccups along the way, they're confident of success in their quest for the perfect beer.