Beer Science: If Yeast Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy
    By Hank Campbell | February 8th 2013 12:58 PM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    It's the weekend, which means it is time for scientists, science journalists, book authors and intellectually curious readers to think about microbiology.  And that means beer. Beer is actually safer to drink than water. You didn't know that?  Let's talk some biology.

    The master ingredient in beer is yeast. That's a microbe! So if you do experiments with beer this weekend, you are advancing the world of science.  If you make beer, you are a microbiologist.  If you drink beer, you are a microbiologist. Microbiologists understand beer and bacteria and stuff, which is why they drink beer more than water.

    They can be a little flaky about other things.  When microbiologist Dr. Alex Berezow (editor of Real Clear Science, my co-author on Science Left Behind and, fascinating to me, recently hired by Elsevier to write the 2nd edition of "Biotechnology: Applying the Genetic Revolution") and I were in Texas for the 2013 Misfits Inauguration Ball, thrown by libertarian TV host Glenn Beck to highlight people in various fields who had annoyed the administration last year, I set out to show him the awesome power of a steak and a cigar.

    When the waitress took our order, he ordered his steak 'well done', bordering on burnt, and the whole place went quiet. Steak artistes have some sort of Spidey Sense about these things and over Alex's shoulder I could see the staff holding back the chef on duty that night. Through that little glass porthole in the door to the kitchen I saw him waving a butcher knife and yelling in our direction, but luckily we couldn't hear what he said.

    "Why would you order a steak well done in a restaurant?  That irritates chefs," I phrased it in the nicest possible way.

    "I'm a microbiologist," he replied, as if that answered the question for anyone but the two of us.

    But he was right in not worrying about microorganisms in his beer yet still making sure his steak was cooked far too hot to be tasty.  Like worrying about an asteroid hitting me in the head, or the chance that health care reform will lead to lower health care costs, some possibilities are so remote they don't merit concern, like me getting ill from a medium rare steak. Still, he was not wrong scientifically so I didn't make goat noises at him. There's icky stuff in raw steak.

    Dr. Charles Bamforth of the University of California, Davis and author of FOAM, which I gushed over here on Science 2.0, is a member of the steering committee that recently produced a report on beer microbiology.  Unlike FOAM, which you have to buy (and really should), the FAQ is free. 

    If you care about beer - and you do - this is bigger than DSM 5 or the next IPCC report, because the 18 members of this committee were not chosen based on geographical or gender or racial quotas, like the IPCC, or patched together by every possible special interest in psychology, like DSM 5, the members were instead selected because they know the most about beer and microbiology.  There's no politics in beer microbiology, the American Academy of Microbiology don't roll that way.

    Their conclusion: Yeast matters.

    They even create the Beer Tree of Life to make it a lot more relevant to everyday people - by showing where beer parts fit:

    See? Yeast is on OUR side. Credit:American Academy of Microbiology

    That's right, you and yeast are not so far apart after all. Yeast is such a popular model organism for learning how cells work because it is a highly sophisticated, complex product of evolution - which means beer is too. And always has been. Beer drinking songs are documented scientifically farther back in civilization than prostitution (despite Big Ho public relations campaigns claiming they are the oldest profession), which shows how important beer has always been to ancient science. 

    Yeast is not just evolving in a random walk or due to natural selection, of course. Like 100% of food products today, it has been genetically modified by humans over time.  Ever since early man tasted the first beer due to the first fermented grain sprout, they worked on ways to make it better.  And in doing so, they made the entire world healthier.

    I don't want to spoil the whole plot but I will answer why you should drink beer instead of water. Fermentation breaks down simple sugars, which produces alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Yeast evolved to do that, to gain a leg up against other microbes, because lots of other microbes can't handle the acidity of CO2 and organic acids produced by yeast. Or alcohol.  Beer has both.

    Yet those microbes survive just fine in water. We might never have survived to create modern sanitation in the 1800s if we only had unclean water to drink. Beer saves lives. That is why at our dinner Alex did not drink the agua, but he had another brew, just to be extra healthy while eating that steak.

    Read more FAQ: If the Yeast Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy: The Microbiology of Beer


    Steve Davis
     Well, I'm making beer this weekend, and drinking beer, so I guess that makes me a master microbiologist! :)
    It's for science! I did some science last night while I played "Dragon Age II" on my Playstation. Really, you can do science anywhere if you try.
    I love you man!

    The medieval alewife did a valuable service, providing a safer drink to the population.  Alas, the name of her trade has all but disappeared, although the fish Alosa pseudoharengus keeps the word alive. 

    The introduction of tea seems to have performed the same function during the Industrial Revolution.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Sometimes the links to science in my articles is tenuous, at best - but using tea rather than beer would be too much suspension of disbelief to ask of the Science 2.0 audience.
    Certainly the Pilgrims believed in beer; settled in Mass. because they had run out of beer. Also, unintended human tampering with beer yeast is lager yeast developing in 16th Century from Argentine yeast mixing with European yeast.. Britain's population growth really began with the introduction of tea-

    So Brits started having more sex and more babies when they stopped getting drunk so much?  Given that insight into their thinking, I now understand why they think tripe and onions is food.
    Beer is God's love for mankind in liquid form.

    Glenn Beck a Libertarian? Puh-leeze. He's the lowest form of Republicrat goon. Certainly does not belong in an article about nice libertarian beer.

    I have never seen Beck's show, other than when I was on it, but watching it in the waiting room prior to that he beat up on Republicans more than Democrats so if he is a Republican goon, he is doing a bad job of it.

    Anyway, without Beck, there is no trip to Texas where I could discover that microbiologists are goofy when it comes to steak. Soooo, thanks Glenn!
    Perhaps, you may be interested in the link between chronic beer drinkers and heart disease, not found in wine drinkers -- like cardiomyopathy, due to the cobalt in beer, with pericardial effusion and low cardiac output. It seems to me this was more about the benefits of yeast rather than beer.

    Dang, more good news about beer, and I am just recovering from a 2 week long gout attack. Reading up on the subject of gout, I find that beer, beef and beans, the Holy Trinity of Sports watchers(aka beer drinkers) are the main triggers. Alas, now I'm relegated to the occasional glass of red wine. Scientific miracle drug, where are you?

    Very enjoyable column, I especially like the part about "Big Ho". Just one little criticism; since when is Glen Beck a Libertarian? Just because he wants to call himself one ( and only since after the Republicans lost the last election) doesn't make it so.

    oops, just saw the other person mention that, and your reply. But still, we don't want him. He's shrill, and a conspiracy nut just for starters.

    But kudos to beer!

    Right, I call him what he calls himself, I don't know him. The president calls himself a liberal but to me he acts like a social authoritarian progressive - I'd still call him a liberal if he was just tangential to the story.
    Yikes. The way the left gets all worked up over the mention of Glen Beck even, as a minor part of a story, is amazing. Some names really hit a nerve with them. Good thing you did not mention Limbaugh or FOX news for heaven's sake.

    ...except... burnt meat has carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAC) that your liver metabolizes into benzene and highly oxidative radicals. I'll take my chances with a little E.coli or liver fluke. I think the beer will kill them off. Love my bloody steak and stout brew. Steak should not be darker than one's beer! ;)

    That is sage wisdom right there.
    Hank, this must be one of your best pieces of writing. You had me laugh all the way to the end. And so much science in it too. :-)

    I have a father that really likes to kill the meat, and we've had several incidents were the rest of the family is trying to cover up or distract our surroundings from paying attention to the ordering of a burnt steak.

    His excuse is that you get a nice voice from it - for singing. hahaha (PS, he never sings)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Hank, this must be one of your best pieces of writing.
    Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.  :)  Thanks!
    Steve Davis
    Hank finds science in a beer bottle, Enrico finds it in his kitchen cupboard.
    If we combine the two, and cook up a storm while enjoying the lager, we have - The Science of Happiness.
    "There's icky stuff in steak." No there isn't! ON steak, perhaps, but that's killed by even minor cooking. IN steak, no. Beef muscle doesn't contain any microbes that can harm you. If it did, it would harm the steer. We call that an infection. You should worry about ground beef because it is all surface. But steak is safe after applying enough heat to sterilize the surface.

    Gerhard Adam
    Oh jeeze.  It's time to get over it.  Is anyone silly enough to believe that the silverware is sterile?  or the plates?  or sharing a meal around a table with a half dozen strangers [not to mention waiters and chefs] breathing on the food.  The heat of cooking the steak is irrelevant, since it will already be getting colonized again by other microbes by the time it gets to your table.

    How many microbes do you think get shaken onto the table by opening a napkin?

    The only role cooking plays is to POTENTIALLY kill pathogenic bacteria that might be present, which is unlikely to be a real threat [in/on a steak], but mostly to kill parasites. 
    Mundus vult decipi