Beer Science

Sometimes I despair about the state of science knowledge in the general public. It happened last Thursday morning when I heard a brief news story at the end of the Marketplace Morning Report about a beer being sold by the Japanese brewery Suntory.  (You can read a related story from Forbes here.)   The beer was being marketed to Japanese women and the marketing ploy was that the beer contained collagen. Since collagen helps your skin maintain its elasticity, the proposal was that drinking this beer would help women maintain the youthful appearance of their skin. I suppose if it actually worked, it would be more convenient to improve your complexion by drinking beer than by applying collagen directly to your skin. Collagen, however, is a protein, so as soon as it hits your digestive system it get broken down (“hydrolyzed” if we’re using chemical terminology) into amino acids, so it doesn’t actually get out into your body as collagen and is thus no better or worse than any other protein source.  (Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave tells me that collagen is actually a pretty poor quality protein from a nutritional standpoint, since its highly repetitive structure relies heavily on a single amino acid.  She also points out that people make this same scientific mistake when they consume gelatin thinking that it will strengthen their nails.)  You would think that someone at Suntory, or maybe someone at a consumer watchdog agency, would know enough science to point out that this couldn’t possibly work, but apparently you would be wrong, so I will just have to continue to try and help the next generation be a little more knowledgeable (or at least a little more skeptical and a little less gullible).

There were also a couple of beer-related stories in recent editions of Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly publication of the American Chemical Society.  The first was a little blurb about a couple of patents related to filling containers of beer from the bottom rather than pouring it in from the top. The patent holder claims that up to 30% of the beer in a keg at a bar is typically wasted due to bartenders either accidentally or purposefully (for artistic reasons?) over-filling glasses and pitchers and allowing foam to spill over the sides.  The idea is that filling from the bottom would eliminate this kind of spillage and allow only foam due to the natural carbonation in beer rising to the surface.  The article didn’t indicate whether this technology would be coming to a bar near you anytime soon, but 30% wastage seems like a lot to me, so it’s not necessarily a bad idea.

Then the latest issue of C&EN arrived featuring a cover story entitled “Microbe Brew,” reporting on a session at the recent national ACS meeting in Denver that explored some of the chemistry of beer brewing and the central role of yeast in that process.  The story interviewed brewmasters from a couple of Colorado breweries: Blue Moon, which tries to look like a craft brewery despite its large volume and position as a division of MillerCoors, and Renegade, which is indisputably a craft brewery with an output smaller than Blue Moon’s by more than three orders of magnitude.  The story also explored the potential for detailed scientific studies of different yeast strains, including sequencing the genomes of the different strains, as a way for improving the ability of brewers to monitor and control the characteristics of the final product.

This brings me back to the difference between lagers and ales that I mentioned in the last post.  It turns out that although most of the fermentation in brewing, distilling, wine-making, and even industrial ethanol production is done by different strains of the same yeast species, lagers use a distinctly different species.  Among the differences between species, the most obvious is that lager yeast prefers a lower temperature, though along with that the ability of this yeast to metabolize sulfites results in the less fruity and generally “crisper” flavor profile that characterizes most mass market beers.  This article in Popular Science does a really thorough job exploring the genetics of lager yeast and explains that it is actually a hybrid of the original European yeast with a strain that originated in South America and only got to the brewers in Europe (totally by accident) sometime in the 1500s, at which time lagers and pilsners started to emerge as an alternative to traditional ales. Speaking of ales, I made it through this spring’s Sierra Nevada IPA sampler and am now moving on to a few new mix packs, but I’ll save those for another post.  Hope that you learned some interesting (if not useful) beer science today.  Cheers!

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