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Heads Up: Yeast Bent on World Domination

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When you make beer, you may think you're the boss of your ingredients. But have you stopped to think about how seemingly innocent Yeast may have the upper hand over humans, at least when it comes to world domination (are you paying attention, gamers)? To investigate Yeast's grand strategy for taking over Mother Earth, we set aside our videogame controllers and spoke with Neva Parker, head of laboratory operations at White Labs in San Diego. What we discovered pulled the rug out from under our malt-dusted brewing boots.

Neva Parker of White Labs. Photo: Lyne Noella.
Here's why you might be underestimating the contents of that seemly humble smack pack or vial. Yeast is so much more than your beer bitch. Hold on tight for some insane information about how Yeast is way-hay ahead of us in the game of world domination.
Yeast has been around forever. Yeah, that's right. Scientists have found the genetic material of Yeast cells dating back to about two billion years, much earlier than even old-school videogame systems like Atari or Nintendo. And Yeast has been evolving the entire time, getting better and stronger. The modern human race has been around for about 200,000 years. You do the math. What's more, Yeast is aided not only by evolution but by passionate men and women dressed in lab coats " aka, scientists " who claim to be helping us brew better beer. Neva shares the facts of Yeast's etymology: The French word for yeast, levure, is traced to the Latin word, levare, used for dough and yeast, to describe an organism that is able to anaerobically release carbon dioxide during the baking process.

What's really going on in those Yeast labs? Photo: Lyne Noella.
Yeast is everywhere. It's in the air. It's on our plants and trees. It's even on the insects inside our homes. And it's in our beer. Don't tell the kids, but Yeast is living in our bodies, right now, making the most of an awesome stealth characteristic. If you squirm when a parasite worms its way out of the protagonist's stomach at the movies, don't think too hard about what Yeast is doing in your belly. Brewing Yeast, however, is a treasure that's a bit more difficult to find because it wants a good source of sugar or carbon. The ground zero for Brewing Yeast is rotting fruit or wet grains, where it feasts on exposed sugars. Yeast has changed the fields of biology and biochemistry with the discovery of enzymes, explains Neva, and this led to many exciting advances but also to the making of TNT and morphine/THC.

Rotting fruit: it's ground zero for Yeast. Photo: Lyne Noella.
Yeast hides in plain sight. You may think a scientist can distinguish WLP001 California Ale Yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, from WLP830 German Lager Yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, by looking under a microscope. Nope. In almost all cases, one Yeast strain looks like another. Scientists and the rest of us must rely mostly on genetics and behaviors to tell one strain from another. Meanwhile, it's a piece of cake to identify one human from another " or even the undead in your average videogame. So prepare for a world-survival situation using the only option you have: watch and react, and thank God for your lightning fast gaming skills. The name Saccharomyces' comes from a Greek word meaning sugar fungus', says Neva. The root for cerevisiae' originated from the Roman God of the crops, Ceres.

Yeast is a cagey beast. Photo: Lyne Noella.
Yeast cells propagate like rabbits. Any gamer will tell you Yeast's spawn time is incredibly low. Like an army of cockroaches, Yeast cells never seem to run out of replacement troops. While individual Yeast cells don't live long, they reproduce in such numbers that they will live through any freaking zombie apocalypse. On the other hand, according to Time magazine, the world's population may actually be declining. Yeast is also terrifyingly adaptive; it has learned how to protect itself by creating an alcoholic environment that is toxic to its enemies. The alcoholic environment created by humans are . . . bars.

Clockwise from upper left: Wild Yeast, Kolsch Yeast, and Sake Yeast. Photo: Lyne Noella.
Yeast plays dirty with survival tactics. Yeast can't walk around like we do, so it resorts to dirty tactics to spread itself around with the help of a battalion of insects. Scientists theorize that Yeast produces esters to beguile insects and birds, who get drunk with bliss over Yeast's fruity, floral aroma. Then they fly away and unwittingly spread Yeast all around the world. How do our aircraft carriers compete with that? Yeast is so interesting to scientists that, says Neva, it is the first genome to ever be sequenced.

Yeast produces fruity esters to beguile birds with its fruity, floral aroma. Photo: Peter F. Seidel.
So, where does that leave us vs. Yeast in the game of world domination? We may have the razor-sharp reflexes to annihilate the infected undead, but Yeast's insane skills make it the ultimate skull-crushing survivor. Our only hope: creativity and imagination. Will it be enough?
Special thanks to Neva Parker of White Labs, Ryan Sather of Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits, and master brewer Bob Mac Kay.
Lyne Noella is a storyteller and homebrewer living in Los Angeles. See her blog at http://www.hummingbrew.com. //www.pinterest.com/pin/create/extension/ t=_self
 
It is interesting how much we can engineer a good beer, and then we put this living creature in there that is going to do whateverits going to do.
Making alcohol, or taking over the world.
 
maybe this is part of a coordinated publicity push (sorta like a singer/band doing super bowl, then announcing a major tour the next day), but Neva will be doing a Reddit AMA this Thursday: https://www.reddit.com/r/Homebrewing/comments/3ps95t/ama_with_neva_parker_white_labs_oct_29th/
 
The constant video game references detracted from the article; maybe I'm not in the teen demographic for an article on home brewing. I've been avoiding these articles - this was the first I've read in quite some time. And the last for quite some more...
 
@MaddBaggins
For the yeast, the science, or the CO-WORKERS? ;)
Overall, good info, great pics (including those without the scientist :D), but the extended metaphor is a bit forced and distracts from rather than contributing to the article.
 
Trim out the repetitive video game/ zombie references and the article becomes much more readable. Great pictures and good info, but the video game stuff doesn't add to the article.
 
Pretty ashamed at many of the above responses to be honest. Yes, the video game references detract from the article leaving the content very hollow, but not nearly as empty as the comments objectifying a very talented biologist who has contributed so much to the brewing world. All in good fun is well and good, but come on - at least TRY to elevate the homebrew community above the Sweedish Bikini Team mentality many associate with our favorite beverage.
I work in a lab where high level research is performed and see far too often the devastating effects of casual sexism and misogyny. Shame on us for participating in such behavior.
Go ahead and flame me, but I for one would love to see an in depth profile of Neva, focusing on the research she performs at White Labs. Research that benefits us all.
Or one that highlights the drunk hummingbirds.... Just sayin!
 
@72hw I came here to write a similarly spirited response. A great way to discourage women from homebrewing and the brewing industry is to objectify them. This is prevalent in the software industry as well, where I work. I can't say I'm surprised by the comments above, but I'm disappointed. It's the exact opposite of what the community should strive for.
Keep up the great work at White Labs, Neva and everyone else. We live in exciting times.
 
Enough with the comments about how anyone here looks. If any others have to be deleted, the poster will be taking a vacation from HBT.
 
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