Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Beer isn't foamy enough?

Here's some interesting food science for you. NPR posted an article on my facebook news feed titled Raise A Toast To Building Better Beer Bubbles Through Chemistry. (It's actually a post on NPR's food blog The Salt.) Scientists in Spain have identified a gene in yeast that is involved in foam retention, and are interested in harnessing this discovery to generate a longer-lasting head. I'm on board with yeast research, but I'm deeply skeptical that what we need or even want is foamier beer. The reporting was actually done by Science Friday (a great program). And the actual journal article reporting the research and findings is in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Abstract Image
Left: the CFG1 nucleotide sequence (in case you want to clone it yourself?)
Middle: there it is, 3500bp long.
Right: what happens if the yeast lack this
 gene (left) compared to normal (right)
Lucia Blasco, et al. "Cloning and Characterization of the Beer Foaming Gene CFG1 from Saccharomyces pastorianus" J. Agric. Food Chem.201260 (43), pp 10796–10807
I mention all this because like any visit to Wikipedia, one click led to another and before I knew it, I had been once again swept up in the beeriverse, a vast expanse of beer knowledge that is apparently expanding by the day, much like an exploding supernova fermentation tank. The science seems sound enough. Unlike the NPR blog, the authors mentioned that this newly discovered gene is only one of several properties that account for foam. However, the introduction starts by announcing that "Foam quality is an important organoleptic property of beer that directly correlates to consumer appeal." I don't know what organoleptic means, but it seems like a haughty claim. But their claim is not unsupported: it cites a book titled Beer: A Quality Perspective, whose first chapter is called "Achieving a suitable head." This reference seems sketchy, but I didn't actually read any of it (it has earned only one of five stars on Google, although only two show up and one is an advertisement. So although the science may be good, my argument is with the premise: that we should aspire to foamier beer. I have always thought a good beer head was one that was thin and did not get in the way. It is visually pleasing, but I'm not sure about the claims I've heard that it helps the beer's aroma. To be fair, there are several ways this research could be applied, and not all of them are sinister. The more innocuous option would be to selectively use this strain of yeast, pastorianus, instead of the other main brewing yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. An extension of that would be to selectively propagate the pastorianus that gives the most foam, much the way dogs are selected for their temperament. Then there's the GMO (genetically modified organism) option, which would mean taking this gene from lager yeast and inserting it into ale yeast. I am not against this sort of genetic modification in general, but it is often for purposes I disagree with (pesticide-resistant crops). I'm not against this genetic modification being done, but I don't want it done to my beer simply because I'm happy with my current level of foaminess. At least I think I am. I'll be looking at the top of my pint glass with a more critical eye from now on. And for all my resistance to this idea, if somebody decides to use this knowledge to make an ale with a better head, I will try it.

So let's hear it: What's your take on this? How big is your head? Would you like it bigger?
Side question: Would you have liked to see more sexual references in this particular post?

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