Quirks & Quarks

The origins of a good beer

A geneticist goes back in time to reveal the genetic family tree of beer's most important ingredient: yeast.

Beer is one our oldest known intoxicants. A 5,000-year-old Sumerian tablet illustrates a keg party, while ancient pots from western Iran and northern China carry traces of key ingredients like barley and fermenting products.

But around 500 years ago in Europe, beer making became commercialized. Brewers began making larger quantities of beer and, without even realizing it, started refining a crucial ingredient: yeast. Yeast is what gives beer its alcohol content, its bubbles, and its flavour.

Dr. Kevin Verstrepen and his team at the University of Leuven, Belgium, decided to dig a little deeper into the evolutionary history of yeast. What they discovered is that the yeast that is found in many of the beers we drink today can be traced back to strains that existed more than 500 years ago. Incredibly, it's our love of the amber nectar that has really shaped the microbe's genetic history.

Visitors reach for the one of the first mugs of beer during the opening day of the 183rd Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, September 17, 2016. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

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