While the startup’s founders believed that hoppy-tasting but hop-free beer was potentially beneficial for brewers and the environment –as Denby said in a New York Times Story After the paper was published, some hop farmers felt threatened. They feared that artificial yeast would end a farming tradition and undermine the soul of brewing, a dance of microorganisms, farmers, brewers and hops that dates back to the 11th century.
Denby declines to speak publicly about the hostility that surprised the company, but news of the provocative idea spread throughout the industry. “Early on, hop growers called us and said, ‘Crap, are you going to stop using hops?'” says Bryan Donaldson, brewery innovation manager at Lagunitas and co-author of the 2018 paper. (Some hop growers are still nervous: “Man stood up at a hops conference earlier this year and said, ‘We don’t like these yeasts because these yeasts can create hop flavors. That’s the Beyond Meat of beer,'” recalls Jeremy Marshall, head brewmaster at Lagunitas.)
Berkeley Yeast turned quickly. Denby and his co-founders surveyed more than 100 brewers to ask what the yeast strain of their dreams would do and found that there wasn’t actually much interest in eliminating hops altogether, although some brewers wanted to reduce hop consumption somewhat to save money .
The feedback led Berkeley to focus on varieties that improve efficiency, such as by removing diacetyl, or enhance the natural hop aromas by adding specific compounds or enzymes. One example is the enzyme carbon-sulphur lyase, which absorbs tasteless molecules from malt and hops and releases flavoring components, so-called thiols, which taste like tropical fruits in beer. Berkeley created his Tropics strain by modifying a yeast commonly used for cloudy IPAs to produce the enzyme.
Since Berkeley Yeast has evolved its aroma, many hop growers have also adapted, realizing that new yeasts can make it easier for brewers to bring out nuanced hop aromas that would otherwise have been too difficult to isolate with a standard yeast. “I think we could see an even bigger push into hops that works with these new strains of yeast,” said Brian Tennis, founder of the Hop Alliance. “As hop growers, we have to make sure we grow what the market demands.”
While Berkeley Yeast is a craft brewing staple, it needs to win over the largest multinational beer companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and Heineken to truly thrive. Craft brewing accounts for only a quarter of the US beer market.
Major beer companies have tested the startup’s yeasts, says co-founder Denby, but declined to name them. Marshall of Lagunitas — a craft beer powerhouse now owned by brewing giant Heineken — thinks it’s only a matter of time. “Someone will step in and we’re kind of on the brink,” he says. “I don’t know who it will be, but once they know, I think it will become commonplace.”
Lagunitas offers Berkeley brews in its taproom, including the Martial Mars Express with an “uncanny pineapple” flavor that you won’t find in grocery stores. According to Marshall, major beer retailers are still unsure whether consumers will be receptive to the concept of GMO yeast and want to know if GMO skepticism from the 1990s and early 2000s has waned.
Denby says he’s confident that at some point the biggest beer makers, like craft brewers, will be unable to resist the creative potential and efficiency that artificial yeast offers. “It will take longer to scale up, but the beer industry in general will change,” he says. Despite his original vision for the company, he is also convinced that the hops will endure. Berkeley’s goal is to complement tradition, not jeopardize it.