The science of beer

One sip of ice-cold summer beer contains traces of about 500 microorganisms, according to BeerDeCoded, an organisation studying the DNA found in the popular beverage. “We want to create a genomic tree of beers which may link similar-tasting beers,” explains project leader Gianpaolo Rando, based in Renens, Switzerland. By extracting the genetic material, researchers can identify a beer’s ingredients – such as the variety of yeast – as well as microbes from the production environment.

Akin to a fingerprint, this information will help craft brewers benchmark new recipes against existing products and control their quality. “We’ve been approached by a large brewing company concerned with authenticating their beer so as to prevent counterfeiting,” Rando adds. An Italian biologist, Rando is committed to involving the public in the project and to sharing all his data. The core team consists of a couple of volunteers, but about 200 people have participated so far. “With step by step instructions, anyone can work with DNA,” says Rando. The public works with kits by UK start-up Bento Lab. The size of a lunch box, they contain all the equipment necessary to extract and prepare DNA. The sample can then be sent to a company for sequencing. To make DNA analysis more accessible to the food industry and simplify their quality control processes, Rando co-founded the start-up SwissDeCode, which was recently selected by the MassChallenge incubator for its accelerator program.

In early 2015, BeerDeCoded raised over €10,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, which allowed the analysis
of 96 beers from over 20 countries. The team hopes to find a relationship between the beers’ DNA and their taste. This analysis, however, does not account for the brewing process, which, says Rando, “is another strong determinant of taste.”

Rando points to a 40-cm cube of Lego bricks, colourful cables and plastic syringes – the homemade version of an instrument which he’d like to use to quantify bitter molecules in beer. Hackuarium, the community lab where the BeerDeCoded team works, is filled with such tinkered equipment and second-hand appliances. “This is a playground for experimentation where anyone is welcome to experience science first-hand.” With beer tasting sessions as additional reward, no wonder people are eager to participate.