Hopless Beer?

I first saw the post about this on Jeff Alworth’s Beervana Blog Facebook group, and then it seemed to be popping up everywhere.  Apparently, some scientists in California used gene splicing to allow yeast to make one of the aroma oils from hops, using genes from other flowers and plants that make those compounds.

Here is a link to the actual research paper, posted on Nature.com
Industrial brewing yeast engineered for the production of primary flavor determinants in hopped beer It’s a bit to chew through, but I’d recommend reading at least the results section.  It does work, to a certain extent, but the commercial viability of it is probably very limited.

What followed was a series of newspaper type articles, ranging from super clickbait, to quasi scientific that briefly touch on the results and then make wild assumptions about what this technology means.  This is one of the major things that drives me bonkers when non scientific people try to make judgments based on science they don’t understand but assuming the science supports them, when sometimes it’s the exact opposite.

First is this article from Quartz which is so poorly written it’s painful to read.  The main issue here is that they roll out the old “Hoppy pale ales and IPAs were made to survive the trip overseas” myth which has long since been busted, and then they claim that hops are no longer needed as a preservative like they were back then.  We may have refrigeration now and better packaging techniques, but beer spoilage is still a major fight every brewer faces.  Hops anti-microbial properties are still very much in play.  Sour beer producers use aged hops that impart almost no bitterness or flavor/aroma specifically for the control of which bacteria and yeast they want to grow and flourish and which they want to inhibit.

Next, have an article from TheTakeout which is very short and barely mentions the research at all, but a couple things.  First, the title of the article “New Beer yeast could make hops irrelevant” This is a huge leap (that all the articles make) that suddenly we could make beers without hops.  That doesn’t work for several reasons, one is that you literally cannot make beer without hops, legally.  It has to contain hops to be considered beer, otherwise it’s a flavored malt beverage (think Zima, Mikes Hard, etc).  Of course those rules can be changed, but for now that’s how it is.  Also, as mentioned above, hops do play other roles than just bitterness or just flavor.

One thing that really gets me about the above article, and even this mostly scientific one from Smithsonian Magazine is the phrase that “some terpenes could mimic the taste of hops”.  I think this is where a lot of people get riled up about GMOs or things like this as being un-natural.  It would be much more accurate to say that some plants contain the same terpenes as hops.  Limonene, one of the major aroma compounds in citrus fruits, is also found in hops and in marjiuana.  It’s not just that hops or weed can “smell like” orange or lemon, they literally contain the exact same compound, produced in an identical, or similar, pathway.  We associate flavors with certain things, usually a food product since that’s what we learn first as kids, but other things contain the same compounds.

A few things, in closing, about this from a commercial prospective.  Yeast is already more expensive than hops, so I don’t imagine there will be much cost savings buy engineering yeast to replace hops.  Plus, this yeast I’m sure would cost a lot more than standard brewers yeast.  Second, the articles talk about hop flavors changing from year to year with crop changes, but yeast is not stable either.  Yeast mutate over time, and after a handful of generations they may not produce these compounds anymore, or not at the same levels.  More research would need to be done (and probably will be) to see how stable these genetic changes are.  Lastly, these yeast were designed to produce one hop oil only.  Hops, like flowers and spices like vanilla, contain hundreds (if not thousands) of flavor compounds.  Vanilla is a great example.  The main compound we associate with vanilla is vanillin.  Artificial vanilla uses only vanillin, whereas real vanilla may be 90% vanillin, but has many other compounds to round out the flavor profile.  Most people can immediately tell the difference between natural and artificial vanilla.  Vanillin is found in oak, which is what gives whiskies and barrel aged beers that hint of vanilla, but on its own it just doesn’t live up to the real thing.  They compared the yeast made beer with a single hop beer, Sierra Nevada Pale ale, and it compared favorably, but you could never mimic a complex hoppy beer like Boneyard RPM which uses 6 or 7 different hop varieties.

In my opinion, this is novel research and probably teaches a lot about yeast genetics, but this has virtually no commercial application, at least for now.  20 years from now, who knows, but as usual the websites that want to claim that we can make beers without hops “right now!” are way off base.

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Trip to Montréal

I just booked my flight to beautiful, sunny errr… snowy(?) Montréal, Quebec, Canada.  I will be travelling there for two weeks in April to attend the Siebel Institute’s Brewing Microbiology short course.

I’m excited both for the learning opportunity and another chance to travel internationally.  Before the start of this year, the extent of my international travel was 6 hours on Grand Nassau in the Bahamas on a cruise ship stopover.  That almost doesn’t count (I didn’t even need my passport…).  In January, my wife and I spent a week in Mexico, deeply embedded in the local culture, and now I’ll have nearly two weeks in Montréal.  Of course, I’m there for the education, but my evenings are free and there’s a free weekend in the middle, so I’ll get to do a little bit of exploring.

Unlike Baja California Sur, Montréal is teeming with craft breweries.  I hope to make it to a handful on my own, and the last day of class the Siebel folks take us on a “brewery tour”.  I don’t know what the stops are, but anywhere we go will be new to me unless it’s one of the ones I happen to run across on my own.

My hotel is walking distance from the class location and there’s a subway station a block away, so I’ll be spending a good amount of time on foot and aboard mass transit.  In my experience, after learning the ropes in Portland and then branching out to cities like San Francisco and San Diego, buses and trains are a great way to see the city and to get around.  As long as you can figure out where you’re going. The subway system seems to be laid out pretty well and cover most of the city.  The buses on the other hand are a little confusing.  There is a bus that goes to the school, but halfway there you have to get of one 115 bus and get on another 115 bus.  I haven’t quite figured that out.  It’s only about a mile walk.  If the weather is halfway decent I’ll just walk.

I’m very happy to work for a company that values education and is willing to send people to these kinds of trainings.  Oh yeah that’s the other great thing, this is a business trip.  There’s no way I could afford this on my own.

I fly out Sunday April 8th, the course runs from Monday, April 9 to Thursday April 19 and I fly home Friday April 20.  (And come straight back to work on Saturday the 21st. It will be a whirlwind of time zones and jet lag, but I’m excited for it.  Can’t wait!

Stay tuned for a recap when I get back!

Untappd Update – 2400

One year, to the day, after my original Rate of Discovery post I hit 2400 unique check ins on Untappd.  Still a ways to go until the next badge milestone of 2500, but close enough to stoke my curiosity to see how close I was getting to my June 6, 2018 prediction from the Untappd Update post which was based on my “beer per day” check in rate.

On June 14, 2017 I was at 1864 unique check ins.  2400 from 1864 is 536 beers (wow!).  June 14th was 269 days ago, so that’s a rate of 1.9925 beers a day.  Nearly exactly 2 beers a day.  That’s a tick up from the 1.70/day from the previous post.  What’s interesting about this is I feel like I’ve had less opportunities in the last year to get big numbers, but I guess they must be coming from somewhere.  We actually didn’t make it to too many festivals last year.  Most of the big ones have been from the beginning of the year, with Best of Craft Beer in January, Festival of Dark Arts in February and SheBrew in March.  Those were each 20-30 samples, which is a lot in one weekend, but still doesn’t add up to 500+.  A trip to Seattle in October contributed as well.

Based on this increase, the overall rate (2400 beers in 1318 days) is now 1.82 beers per day.  That actually bumped it up a decent amount.  According to the new rate, I should hit 2500 in 55 days.  That would be May 2, 2018.  Shaved off a whole month.  Something tells me that won’t actually happen.  There aren’t too many big beer events between now and May.  I will be travelling to Montréal, Quebec, Canada in April for a brewing microbiology course and I’ll surely hit some breweries, but 100 beers in two weeks would be a whole lot. We’re going camping with the homebrew club Memorial Day weekend and I’d imagine that one of the beers from that weekend will end up being #2500, which will be appropriate since #1000 was from the Memorial Day weekend Sour Beer Camp two years ago.  Slightly earlier than the June 6 prediction, but not by much.

We’ll see!

2018 SheBrew

I had intended to write something beforehand and never got around to it, so this becomes a recap rather than a preview.

This past weekend was the 2018 SheBrew festival.  This unique beer festival highlights female-identified brewers in the industry.  The beer industry is still very heavily male dominated, but it’s changing.  Perhaps faster here than elsewhere since Portland tends to be pretty progressive about such things.  Last year’s festival featured 20 or so beers from companies that employed a female brewer, with about 10 (so I heard) actually brewed by that brewer.  This year there were 22 offerings, 15 or 16 beers, 5 or 6 ciders and 1 mead, all brewed by female brewers.  The festival is a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign and is organized by the Portland Branch of HRC.

Last year, the HRC approached the Oregon Brew Crew (of which I am a member) about running a homebrew competition in conjunction with the pro festival.  This year we had about 130 entries from 22 states and, in only it’s second year, SheBrew became the largest female-identified homebrew competition in the country.  My wife served on the planning committee and also on the day of the comp organized entries for judging as Cellarmaster. 10 homebrewers were also selected to pour beer at the Festival for people’s choice style judging.

For the second year, I volunteered to help run the festival.  The night before I went to help set up tables and jockey boxes and then the following morning we helped finish setup.  I poured beer for the first two hours of the festival, while my wife sold raffle tickets.  After that, I got to enjoy the festival, which was awesome! All the beers were fantastic.  A lot of creativity of styles and ingredients, including two beers with glitter in them (glitter beer is apparently a thing now) and one of the glitter beers was green! Inspired by Todrick Hall’s take on the Wizard of Oz it was just the right amount of flashy.  It sure got people talking.  I have no idea how many people came through the door, but it was packed! I hope they sold a lot of beer and a lot of raffle tickets.  All the money raised goes towards the fight for equality.

I neglected to take any pictures, but there’s some great shots from the Festival (and brewer bios) on the SheBrewPDX Instagram page HERE. Big thanks go out to Buckman Coffee Factory for hosting and Chicks of All Trades flagging company for sponsoring, both local female-owned companies.

I’m honored to have played even a tiny part of helping this fest go, and I’m already looking forward to next year.  March 2, 2019 is already on the calendar!