Beer’s Chemical Formula: The Yeast-Making Microbiologists Behind Your Favorite Brews

“If you’re a student and you’re trying to pursue a career in microbiology, the options are endless. Study well and be well-informed—but pursue your dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you not to do that.”

Jasper Akerboom, PhD, Microbiologist and the Co-founder of Jasper Yeast

For a science focused on the very small, the field of microbiology is awfully large. There are 100 million times as many bacteria in Earth’s oceans as there are stars in the known universe. The number of microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil is roughly the same as the number of people currently living in Africa. The microbial world is absolutely teeming with possibilities, and so are its associated career options. All you have to do is look a little closer.

Microbiology probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you take a sip of beer, but it’s the science behind the suds. At every stage of the brewing process, from raw material production and malting to stability in the package, microbial activity is involved.

As barley is slowly transformed into beer, it’s the microbial interdictions at each step that provide the final product’s taste and quality. So the next time you raise your glass, consider making a toast to the microbiologists who made it possible.

What Yeasts Go Into Brewing Beer?

The most important microorganisms in a typical brew are strains of Saccharomyces, a type of yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a top-fermenting ‘ale yeast’, and Saccharomyces pastorianus is a bottom-fermenting ‘lager yeast’ (the latter term once going under the name Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, which was attributed to a Danish biochemist working for Carlsberg in 1883).

But, as with everything in microbiology, the closer you look, the more there is to it.

A Brief History of Microbiologists in Beer

Humans have been brewing beer for over 9,000 years, and they’re getting increasingly adept at manipulating the microbial science behind the process. Today, most major breweries have microbiologists working in their labs. Some, like Carlsberg, even have dedicated yeast and fermentation research teams. But a lot of microbreweries are getting in on the science, too, and some microbiologists are working in independent yeast labs that cater directly to them.

“The brewing industry has been changing quite a bit over the last 15 to 20 years,” says Jasper Akerboom, PhD, a microbiologist and the co-founder of Jasper Yeast, a yeast lab that caters to breweries.

“More breweries are coming up, and these are often breweries started by people that are kind of new [who] haven’t run a brewery before. There’s a big opportunity there for us to show them the science—and then use the science to help them make better beer.”

A Microbiologist’s Quest to Inform Better Beer: The Founding of Jasper Yeast

The public’s thirst for beer is insatiable and varied, and Akerboom and his team help breweries obtain different yeasts that yield different flavor profiles. Jasper Yeast offers consulting services for fermentation, general brewery operations, and quality control/assurance (QC/QA). In the lab, they isolate variants from specific sources that brewers want to use and perform microbial analysis on each propagation that they do.

“It’s definitely a very hands-on lab environment,” Akerboom says. “Microbiology plays a major role.”

Akerboom started out with an impressive, but somewhat traditional, microbiology background. He earned his PhD in microbiology and food technology from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and his postdoctoral studies focused on protein engineering at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Janelia Research Campus in Virginia.

But in 2013, Akerboom decided to apply his high-level lab and research experience to the pursuit of better beer and took a position as brewing scientist at Lost Rhino Brewing Company. There, he organized and managed the QA/QC lab, yeast propagations, and barrel-aged beer program. Co-founding his own yeast lab, Jasper Yeast, was a logical next step.

“If you leave academia and you’re gone for a few years, then that door kind of closes,” Akerboom says. “That might inhibit some people, taking that step, but I’m not sad I did it. I’m still using my knowledge. It’s not going to waste—I’m very happy about that.”

Previously, the cost of brewery-related microbial analysis was prohibitive to all but a handful of well-funded yeast companies. This meant a big disconnect between the purchaser and provider, and very little cooperation between the two.

But the cost of analytic techniques and equipment has come down in recent years, allowing smaller labs, like Jasper Yeast, to take a more boutique and interpersonal approach.

“We have a very short link to the people that are actually using the yeast, and that to me is very exciting,” Akerboom says. “I talk to them every day, and they tell me how it’s going, what they’re finding, and I can help them with that. That’s different from many other places where you’d be a microbiologist. For me, being able to work with the breweries—being able to sometimes teach them a little about new things—it’s just the best part of the job.”

For Akerboom, a typical day can vary, based on the needs of his clients. Shipments of yeast may need to be packaged and sent. Others will need to undergo cell-counts and quality control testing. A significant portion of Akerboom’s time is spent researching, too, so that he can continue to innovate on his product line. That freedom to explore is one of the major perks of working in an independent laboratory.

“If something’s wrong, we have to fix it, but on the other hand, no one is telling us what to do, and that is very nice,” Akerboom says. “If I really want to read an article about this new sugar regulation in yeast, I can just sit and do that and take my time. There’s no PI or manager saying, ‘Hey, come on, we have to do this now.’ Obviously, we do have deadlines, but they’re all in our hands. That’s a very nice thing.”

Akerboom is clearly working with what he loves. He’s the President of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, and he regularly gives talks at homebrewer gatherings and local brewers guild meetings. Leveraging his expertise in microbiology, he’s won numerous homebrewing and professional brewing awards: one of his beers for Lost Brewing, the Bone Dusters Paleo Ale, was made with yeast isolated from a 35 million-year-old whale fossil. How’s that for a resumé?

For some aspiring microbiologists, the end goal is an assistant professorship or a postdoc position in a top research laboratory. For others, it’s focusing on the science behind their personal passion. With microbiology, as with so much else, it’s the little things that make all the difference.

“If you’re a student and you’re trying to pursue a career in microbiology, the options are endless,” Akerboom says. “Study well and be well-informed—but pursue your dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you not to do that.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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