Beer Spoilage and the Origins of Modern Science

Most fermentation microbiology students are aware that cheese, sausage, and other fermented foods evolved, in part, because these products had unique and desirable sensory characteristics. Likewise, they might also appreciate the many pleasant attributes of malted and hopped beverages. However, it is important to recognize that, while our ancestors undoubtedly enjoyed beer for many of the same reasons as today's consumers,they also understood that beer, like other fermented foods, was somehow better preserved than the raw materials from which they were made. For hundreds of years, for example, early trans-Atlantic voyagers (like the Pilgrims mentioned above) relied on beer because it was a well-preserved form of nourishment. In fact, until relatively recently, beer was often safer to drink than water, was less likely to cause water-borne disease, and was less susceptible to spoilage. Of course, we now know that the microbiological stability and "safety" of beer is due, in part, to its ethanol content, as well as other anti-microbial constituents and properties (discussed, in more detail, later in this chapter).

Despite the stability and general acceptance of beer as a well preserved product, it can in deed become spoiled. As beer manufacturing in Europe grew from small, craft-oriented production into a large brewing industry in the middle of the nineteenth century, the prevention of beer spoilage became an important goal of industrial brewers, who were often troubled by inconsistencies in product quality.These difficulties attracted the attention of chemists and other scientists, who were enlisted to solve some of these technical problems.

Beer manufacture was, in fact, one of the first industrial fermentations to be studied and characterized, and was the subject of scientific inquiry by early microbiologists and biochemists. The very development of those scientific disciplines coincides with the study of beer and other fermented foods (Box 9-1). In particular, the science of beer making was revolutionized in 1876 by Pasteur, who not only showed that yeasts were the organisms responsible for the fermentation, but also that the presence of specific organisms were associated with specific types of spoilage. Pasteur also developed processes to reduce contamination and preserve the finished product. It is worth noting that even today, preventing beer spoilage by microorganisms is still an important challenge faced by the brewing industry.

Scientific interest in brewing extended throughout Europe, leading to establishment of research laboratories in Copenhagen (the Carlsberg Laboratory) and Bavaria (the Faculty of Brewing), as well as laboratories located within several breweries. Perhaps the most noteworthy discoveries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were made by Emil Christian Hansen at the Carlsberg Laboratory. He developed pure culture techniques for yeasts, which eventually led to methods (still in use today) for propagation and production of yeast starter cultures free of contaminating bacteria and wild yeasts.

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