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Hyper-local brew

Bonne Bay, biology and beer: community partnership exploring marine yeasts

By Kelly Foss

Imagine sitting back on a hot summer day and cracking open a locally produced beer made with all N.L.-sourced ingredients.

A man and a woman seated at a table with a grouping of beer cans in front of them.
From left are Drs. Dawn Bignell and Duncan McIlroy.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Faculty of Science researchers hope to get one step closer to that ideal by searching for wild yeasts from an unexpected source: the oceans around Newfoundland and Labrador.

From seaweeds to sediments

“When Jim MacDonald, who owns Western Newfoundland Brewing Company, first set up his business in Pasadena on the West Coast, I provided him with hops from my garden and he brewed a beer from that,” said Dr. Duncan McIlroy, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and a former director of the Bonne Bay Aquarium and Research Station (BBARS). “We’ve been talking beer ever since.”

In the fall of 2022 Mr. MacDonald sent Dr. McIlroy an article about a Croatian graduate student who had found a new marine yeast in sea water, which he then used to make a beer.

“He wanted to know if we could do something like that,” he said.

Dr. McIlroy knew, in theory, it could be done, but wasn’t sure who at Memorial could help.

“I did a little reading and found that marine yeasts could be isolated from everything from seaweeds to sediments,” he said. “So, I contacted Dr. Suzanne Dufour in the dean of Science office and said, ‘I have a slightly crazy idea …’”

Intriguing idea

Dr. Dufour, a professor in the Department of Biology, connected him with Dr. Dawn Bignell, a Biology colleague, who was intrigued by the idea.

She teaches an undergraduate food microbiology course at Memorial. One of the things they discuss in the class is the production of fermented foods, including beers.

“What’s really interesting is, despite having all these different varieties of beers available, the types of yeasts used are very limited,” she said. “So, there’s been a lot of interest in exploring different environments for novel yeasts that could produce new beers with interesting and unique flavours.”

A woman and a man in a laboratory setting with shelves of glassware behind them.
Finding novel marine yeasts is just one component of the project. The yeasts will also need to be tested to see if they have the characteristics brewers require.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

After doing her own research Dr. Bignell realized that, other than that one article, there were no other reports of people using marine yeast for this purpose.

She saw it as a great opportunity to be involved in something completely new.

“I also really liked the public engagement aspect and thought it was an idea that could really tickle the imagination of the public.”

Dr. Bignell recently hired a graduate student to begin work on the project this fall. She says she’s received a lot of interest from prospective students — not surprisingly.

“The aim is to get the student out to Bonne Bay in September, collecting samples of seawater, seaweed and sediment. They’d then spend the fall doing culture enrichments from the collected samples to isolate the yeasts, making stocks of them and characterizing them over the winter.”

Testing yeast characteristics

That work is particularly important, since successful brewing yeasts require certain characteristics.

“Newfoundland and Labrador needs to take advantage of every asset available to generate new methods of food production.” — Jim MacDonald

Wort, which is used in beer-making, contains sugars that originate from the malted grain, and brewery yeasts use those sugars to produce ethanol and other compounds.

“But not all yeast can tolerate ethanol, so you don’t want to use a yeast that starts producing ethanol and then basically shuts down and kills itself because it has a low tolerance,” said Dr. Bignell. “Similarly, not all yeasts can ferment the sugars present in wort efficiently.”

Another characteristic brewers look for is flocculation.

“Typically, in a brewing process, at the end of fermentation they collect the yeast and reuse it in the next fermentation,” said Dr. Bignell. “For that to occur, you want the yeast to either rise to the top of the liquid, or settle to the bottom —– that’s flocculation. If a yeast doesn’t do that, and you have to find a way to separate it yourself, it can be quite a laborious process. So, those are the characteristics you want to test for.”

Exciting potential

Mr. MacDonald says he is excited about the potential of the project.

Jim MacDonald stands in a huge room with giant metal vats and pipes.
Jim MacDonald in the Western Newfoundland Brewing Company’s production room.
Photo: Submitted

He says wild yeasts can create novel flavours not typically found in commercial yeasts.

“A lot of wild beers can be quite tart and fruity, which is a characteristic otherwise created by inoculating beer wort with bacteria,” he said. “Beers fermented from airborne yeasts are complex and a lot of fun to make, as we have been learning at the brewery over the past year. As much as I love a good lager, creating a beer from a yeast captured in the wild is enormously satisfying.”

He says this type of collaboration with Memorial can be incredibly valuable to communities, the province and beyond.

“Newfoundland and Labrador needs to take advantage of every asset available to generate new methods of food production that could, in turn, improve our local economies.”

About 96 per cent of the province’s non-seafood exports are distilled spirits, which are imported and bottled by the provincial government and sold as Newfoundland and Labrador-made products.

“This is a province in desperate need of new ways to produce and process food at a community level.”

University support

The project has obtained in-kind support from Memorial’s Grenfell Campus to allow the use of the facility, including the boat, lab and freezers during the collection process.

The team also has initial funding in place from a Memorial University seed grant, to get the project off the ground. Dr. Bignell says the project is “completely unrelated” to what her research lab normally does, so they are fortunate to receive the funding.

“We’re also considering the possibility of bringing in additional funding from other grants for what we are anticipating to be a two-year project. If we can find one new strain it would be fantastic, but we might get lucky and find a couple that have different properties and characteristics that could make different-tasting beer. The possibilities are endless.”

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