Genetically-engineered yeast may be the final frontier for the beer snob. I was not ready for it.
Two things caught my eye on the brightly-patterned can: a collaboration between two of my favorite local breweries, Almanac and Moonraker, and the promise of an “alien yeast” that would bring otherworldly hop flavors. I made my way to checkout line with a four pack of Time Bender, ready to shill out over $20, a once outrageous price that is now fairly common in the high-end craft beer world.
Back home, I poured myself a pint. It was good, tasting subtly different from other hazy IPAs. I inspected the can again, and found a third logo, that of Berkeley Brewing Science (BBS). Googling their name, I’m not sure what I expected to find. Maybe a smiling bunch of graduate students tending a campus hop farm on a sunny day.
I discovered that the alien yeast is indeed alien; it is genetically engineered in a laboratory. Using Crispr-Cas9, the same technology that has raised concerns over designer babies and spawned an entire Netflix series, the yeast’s DNA is edited to include snippets from other plants whose flavors you would normally find in IPAs: mint, basil, pineapple.
The yeast is then delivered to breweries, who ditch hops in their brewing process, leaving only the yeast to produce all of the hoppy characteristics. The apparent benefits of this are two-fold. The removal of hops means conservation of the water and energy used to grow and transport them, and the genetically engineered yeast can produce endless assortments of novel flavors.
I found a section on the BBS website that posed the question, is the yeast safe? Absolutely, they said, and provided a scientific explanation. The molecules in the beer brewed with engineered yeast are identical to the ones in normal beer; same in the end, essentially. The terms and conditions on the site did mention that “not all the characteristics … are known and it is possible the materials are volatile or dangerous”. Lawyer speak, I hoped.
Still, I couldn’t help but to feel a little like a guinea pig. Fortunately I wasn’t the only subject of the experiment. As of this writing, there are over 700 other people who enjoyed the same hazy IPA on the app Untapped, where beer drinkers can share their daily pints and accrue cred points. I wondered if they knew that they were drinking beer produced with a genetically engineered yeast. Maybe they didn’t care; they were probably drunk, after all.
I ended up returning the beer to Whole Foods. I felt like I wouldn’t enjoy the remaining cans, and would be picturing little extraterrestrial yeast in my belly the whole time. When they asked why I was retuning a partially drunk pack of beer, I mentioned that the yeast was genetically engineered. They gave me that “just another 5G-fearing loony” look, and kindly processed my return. I muttered something about Crispr, and then went on with my shopping, feeling embarrassed. Ignorance is bliss.