A new development in the beer world has come from the centuries-old relationship between flowers and their pollinators. What is it? Bee yeast.
After years of studying the way that yeast—a living microbe that lives in flower nectar—travels in the natural world via pollinators like bees and wasps, researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a fermentation method that utilizes this special travel system.
Although there are upwards of 1,500 species of yeast in existence, the production of alcohol has relied on only two types for most of history—ale yeast and lager yeast. But in 2014, Rob Dunn, an applied ecologist at NCSU teamed up with John Sheppard, a research brewer on campus, to create a special project for the World Beer Festival, and thus, the idea for “bumblebeer” was born.
Dunn now works with Anne Madden, an environmental microbiologist at the university to study the microbes, such as yeast, that bees and wasps carry with them as they move from plant to plant, and even store on their bodies. In a study of a number of vineyards in Italy, for instance, researchers found that the wasps who pollinated the grapes in the spring and autumn could still carry those yeast cells as they hibernated in winter, and even transmit them to their offspring. In the lab, Dunn and Madden intercept pollinators from fields in North Carolina, study their microbes in a petri dish, and then isolate the yeast into a new dish.
So far, Madden has discovered two viable yeasts—from one bee and one wasp—capable of processing maltose, the sugar found in malted barley that is essential to beer production, and both have gone a long way.
“People tend to ask us how many insects died to make beer, and the answer is very few,” Madden told PBS. Once the yeast is separated, we can use the yeast for eternity without going back to those insects. To make all of the different bumblebeers that we’ve made, we’ve killed two bugs. You’ve likely killed more bugs on your way to a bar to get beer.”
Best of all, the fermentation conditions of wild yeast, such as bumblebeer yeast, can be adapated to create different flavor profiles, according to Sheppard. The team is currently working on developing its own version of the latest beer craze—sour beer—which can take months or years to brew. The bumble-yeasts, however, can produce a sour beer in a few weeks. The brewers—Dunn, Madden, and Sheppard—have licensed these strains of yeast, known as Lachancea, and their project is the first of its kind to plan for commercial brewing. Under the right conditions, the bumble-yeast will be able to yield 10 times the acid than other strains of sour beer yeast.
Earlier this year, the researchers’ work was used in the production of the first commercially available bumblebeer ever, through North Carolina’s own Deep River Brewing company. And the beer research keeps on going.
“We’ve worked recently with one species of camel cricket, one bumblebee, one wasp—and we’ve found three things useful to society,” Dunn said. “Two are new yeasts for making beers, one is a new kind of bacteria for breaking down waste.” The rest of the insect world is still barely touched when it comes to its role in food production, but the possibilities are infinite.
As if you needed any more reasons to save the bees, now we know that they can also make beer—good beer. And while we’re at it, I guess we should leave wasps alone too.