Hops-free beer could be good for brewers and the environment, although startup co-founders think – as Denby says in a report New York Times The story after the paper – Some hop growers feel threatened. They worry that engineered yeast could end agricultural traditions and hollow out the soul of brewing, the dance of microbes, farmers, brewers and hops that dates back to the 11th century.
Danby surprised companies by refusing to speak publicly about the confrontation, but news of the provocative idea swept the industry. “Early on, hop growers called us and said, ‘Oops, you don’t use hops anymore?'” says Bryan Donaldson, Lagunitas’ brewing innovation manager and co-author of the 2018 paper. (Some hop growers are still nervous: “There was a guy who stood up at a hops conference this year and said, ‘We don’t like these yeasts because they can create hop flavors. This is the Beyond Meat of the beer world,'” Jeremy Ragu Marshall, head winemaker at Nitas, recalls.)
Berkeley yeasts make a quick turnaround. Denby and his co-founders interviewed more than 100 breweries about what their dream yeast strain would do, and found that there wasn’t actually much interest in eliminating hops entirely, although some breweries wanted to reduce hops a bit for cost reasons usage of.
This feedback has led Berkeley to focus on strains that improve efficiency, for example by removing diacetyl, or by adding specific compounds or enzymes to enhance natural hop flavor. One example is carbon-sulfur lyase, which absorbs odorless molecules present in malt and hops and releases flavor components called mercaptans, which taste like tropical fruits in beer. Berkeley created the Tropics strain by modifying the yeast normally used for cloudy IPA to produce the enzyme.
Since Berkeley yeast evolved its niche, many hop growers have adjusted as well, realizing that the new yeast allows brewers to more easily accentuate subtle hop flavors that would otherwise be difficult to isolate with standard yeast . “I believe we can see a bigger push for hops to be used with these new yeast strains,” said Brian Tennis, founder of the Hops Alliance. “As hop growers, we need to make sure that what we grow is what the market demands.”
While Berkeley yeast is a fixture of craft beer, to truly succeed it must win over the biggest multinational brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken. Craft beer accounts for only a quarter of the U.S. beer market.
Co-founder Danby said major beer companies have been testing the startup’s yeast, but declined to name it. Marshall of craft beer giant Lagunitas thinks it’s only a matter of time. “Somebody’s going to jump in and we’re standing on the edge of a cliff,” he said. “I don’t know who it will be, but once they know, I think it will become commonplace.”
Lagunitas offers beers brewed with the Berkeley strain at its bar, including the Martial Martian Express, which features an “incredible pineapple” flavor, but you won’t find it in grocery stores. Marshall said major beer distributors were still unsure whether consumers would embrace the concept of genetically modified yeast, and wondered if the skepticism about GMOs of the 1990s and early 2000s had faded away.
Danby said he believes the largest brewers will eventually be as irresistible as craft brewers are to the creative potential and efficiency offered by engineered yeast. “It will take longer to scale, but the broader beer industry will change,” he said. Despite his original vision for the company, he also believes hops are here to stay, saying Berkeley aims to complement tradition, not threaten it.