A little more adventurous: how a microbiologist is using science to make beer fun

Dan Driscoll is a science guy first and a beer guy second. 

Sure, he’ll wax poetic about Belgian quadruples and bourbon stouts, but what Avery Brewing’s quality assurance manager really wants to talk about is microbiology and yeast. 

“Some yeasts like fermenting warmer, some like colder, some produce higher ester compounds, some banana flavors, some clove flavors, some are really clean and don’t produce a whole lot of esters,” Driscoll said. “There are hundreds of different strains of yeast… I want a yeast library.”  

Driscoll is a biologist by training, which might explain why he’s most comfortable in his lab, tucked away toward the back of Avery’s sprawling new Gunbarrel, Colorado headquarters. Before joining their team six years ago, he worked as a molecular biologist for biofuel and biotechnology companies.

A few decades ago, someone like Driscoll might not have considered a career in the beer business, but today, scientists like him are the unlikely stars behind many craft breweries’ success. While main-stream beer giants still dominate the industry, craft brewers are finding an edge with customers who have grown tired of run-of-the-mill loggers.”

“The consistency is second to none,” Driscoll said of big-name breweries. “As far as would I like to drink them, no. I think they’re boring. I don’t think they’re fun. I don’t think they’re adventurous.” 


Avery Brewing Quality Assurance Manager, Dan Driscoll, in his lab at the company’s Gunbarrel headquarters

In order to be more adventurous without sacrificing quality, companies like Avery are turning toward lab technicians who can harness the power of microbiology to develop new flavors and styles of beer.

Primarily, Driscoll uses living organisms like yeast and bacteria to set Avery’s beer apart.

Yeast has always been crucial in creating beer, but early brewers didn’t recognize its role in the process. In fact, the Bavarian beer purity law of 1516, known as Reinheitsgebot, mandates that true beer may only contain water, hops and barely.  

“Thousands of years ago, people didn’t know what yeast was, right, so if they didn’t know what yeast was then it was just water, hops, barely and magic, and it spontaneously fermented and everybody had a party,” Driscoll said.

Of course, it wasn’t magic making the beer ferment. It was a community of single-celled organisms, technically a form of fungi, reproducing and converting fermentable sugars into alcohol.

In large part, these microorganisms don’t make it into the finished products. Most beers go through a polishing process, where yeast is extracted in order to give the beer its transparent appearance, but some of Avery’s most popular brews do contain living microbes in the bottle.

Avery’s white Belgian ale, White Rascal, gets its cloudy appearance and slightly fermented taste from yeast, as does Liliko’i, a beer that combines a White Rascal base with passionfruit to achieve its island-inspired flavor.  

Another fruity Avery beer, Raspberry Sour, my seem new and edgy, but it’s actually a relic of ancient brewing.

“The origin of sour beer, originally, is people not knowing what sanitation is,” Driscoll said.

“Sour beer is caused by bacteria producing lactic and acidic acid in the beer, as basically a secondary form of fermentation.

Thanks to a better understanding of bacteria and yeast, today’s brewers are able to put a twist on ancient brewers’ mistake, strategically infecting beer to create pleasantly lip-puckering sour brews. 

Science isn’t only critical in making more creative beers, but also in preventing health or quality issues. A huge part of Driscoll’s job is making sure that the infections that create sour beers don’t get out of control, reaping unintended consequences.

“If those organisms got into our packaging equipment and we couldn’t clean it effectively then we would be making sour everything from here on out, and that would be a huge problem and I’d lose my job,” he said. To avoid this, other beers go through a pasteurization process, and the sours are stored in a separate facility and de-barreled in an isolated room.

Inside Avery’s brewery

Driscoll’s fascination with microbiology and its importance in craft brewing isn’t just a quark of his position. In fact, yeast is such a central part of Avery’s process that on the company’s website, each beer is listed alongside its specific yeast variety and is rated by how “yeast-centric” it is. Along with practical reasons like lower costs and better quality control, this emphasis on yeast as a mechanism for new beer flavors and varieties is why Driscoll longs for his own yeast library.

“Yeast is a living organism, right, so there can be horizontal gene transfer, that kind of stuff,” he said. “You can make mutations for better or for worse in a yeast strain, so there could be millions of different yeast strains that people could use to brew beer.”

For the sake of great beer, here’s hoping that library comes along soon.`

 

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