Fundamentals of Fermentation

Calling all beer lovers!

Oktoberfest, the largest beer festival in the world, pays homage to the Bavarian culture that first introduced the popular beverage. And while we may celebrate the unique heritage of beer, what about the future of beer?

That future is dependent on microorganisms, says Chris Cornelison, a Kennesaw State microbiologist. Yeast – fundamental in the fermentation process in beermaking – creates the beer’s alcohol content but is also the single contributor for taste.

“There are infinite flavor compositions for beer,” he says. Our favorite pint is an eclectic mix of water, barley, hops and yeast, but it’s the yeast that is changing the future of beer.

Yeast in Petri Dish

“The microbiota flourish during the fermentation process, and those outcomes can make interesting flavor profiles, using blends with interesting flavor notes, and allow brewers to ‘turn the tank’ more quickly,” he explains.

Using alternative yeasts is becoming a new trend in beermaking, Cornelison says.

“Brewers are learning how to use different microbes to generate new flavor profiles,” the researcher says. “Yeast is so unexplored. For years, we’ve been using two species of yeast from one genus, Saccharomyces.”

Most large-scale microbreweries stick with the traditional ale or lager yeast, but use rice, corn syrup or sugar to sweeten, while smaller craft breweries are trying new varieties of yeast to speed the process and enhance or alter the flavor, Cornelison explains.

Beer Tank

With more than 10,000 craft breweries worldwide, brewers are looking for that novel yeast and adding adjuncts – fruit juice, bourbon or coffee – in an effort to draw new consumers.

The novelty of beers like IPAs or kettle sours are also creating our Instagram-worthy shots of the fashionable trends, and it’s leading the way for brewers to continue to push for new flavors, new processes and new distribution channels in the competition for customers.

All of these innovative strategies are catering to our thirsty palettes.

But there’s a science behind this gastronomy that is also attracting researchers like Cornelison.

He says scientists’ contributions in understanding microbiota and the various alternative yeast strains is a positive gain for beer brewers and consumers alike.

“Beer was the first biotechnology and was a way to convert crops to a high-caloric drink that could be stored for long periods,” he says. “There’s chemistry, microbiology and engineering that goes into beer making.”

“Beer was the first biotechnology and was a way to convert crops to a high-caloric drink that could be stored for long periods.”

Chris Cornelison, microbiologist at Kennesaw State University

Today, we aren’t demanding sustenance from beer to get through our winters, but we are demanding unique flavors and higher alcohol content. Beer may be hundreds of years in the making, but it’s the science behind it – the yeast inoculation – that will determine the future of beer.