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Celebrating Beer, a True Microbial Tradition

06/29/2015 12:39 EDT | Updated 06/29/2016 05:59 EDT
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This week is special for Canada and the United States. It's our birthdays and as always, we are ready to celebrate!

One of the most important activities behind the festivities of July 1st and 4th is reflection. Both countries have gone through many changes over the last 148 and 239 years. They've both grown in size and population. They've experienced war both at home and abroad. There have been moments of ecstasy and also incredible moments of pain.

Yet, amidst all the trials and tribulations, both countries have stayed true to a number of traditions. Some are sociopolitical, such as democracy, while others are more ingrained into our cultural existence. In this light, there is nothing more Canadian than maple syrup whilst Americans still love their apple pie.

There is another tradition that has stood the test of time for both countries. It's a love for the yeast-brewed, amber, foamy liquid known universally as beer. It doesn't matter where you are in these countries, you can always be sure to find at least one place where you can grab a pint, mug, bottle or can.

The nature of the frothy liquid has expanded over the years and now hundreds if not thousands of different varieties can be found. This isn't much of a surprise. The microbial manufacturer responsible for beer, yeast, loves to evolve. Many strains have changed over the years as have the tastes of their final outcomes.

However, there is one strain of yeast that has remained exactly the same for over 100 years. As a result, the beer that it makes also has stayed true to tradition since the beginning. It's held not in a museum but in a very secure location in the heart of St. Louis. As for its owner, it's a name many of us know: Anheuser-Busch.

When I heard about this traditional strain of yeast and the fact it has not changed despite the rapid evolution of microbes (which can happen in as little as 20 minutes), I had to reach out to Kendra Bowen. She is the head of the Global Yeast Preservation and Dispatch Department at the company and only the fifth person to hold that position. Considering there have been 24 Prime Ministers and 26 Presidents in that same time, she holds a very honoured position.

As Bowen explained, the tradition of using the exact same yeast began right at the beginning in the 1800s. "The goal was, and is, to maintain the exact same product as first enjoyed almost 140 years ago. We could always make sure the grains, water, and other ingredients were the same. But as for the yeast, that presented an even greater challenge."

The process of preserving the yeast began in the 1800s in a rudimentary way. Essentially, the strain was kept in hiding until it was needed at which point it was propagated to ensure enough was made for the brewery. But with expansion -- the company is present all over the world -- scientific innovation came into the picture. Bowen explains:

"We keep our cultures in liquid nitrogen, which keeps the yeast preserved at -320 degrees Fahrenheit (-196 degrees Celsius). We have twenty vials of the original yeast from the 1800s, which we call the mother. Every 20 years, we make over 1,000 separate vials (that's 52 each year), which are the working stock. Every Monday, we take one of these vials and grow up the yeast. It's a seven-week journey from one vial to 2,000 barrels. That's just enough for every brewery around the globe."

The process is incredibly rigid in terms of quality control. Although the mother is only touched once every 20 years, they have to make sure it is exactly the same as the first batch. Bowen says the cultures are examined every year to be sure they have not evolved in any way. So far, Bowen says the technique has been successful.

"We haven't seen much change thanks to this system. We perform several genetic tests to be sure regardless. But over the years, the process has been the best way to ensure we are maintaining the tradition and of course, the beer."

But, much like the two countries, Bowen does suggest there have been changes over the years. The original yeast is still used for the most traditional products but as the variety of products has increased, so have the number of different types of the microbe.

"We have grown the number of strains in our library from the original to hundreds today we can use for new products. We currently produce only 30 of those strains; each one is for a particular Anheuser-Busch product. But even though the yeast may be different, we treat them the same way as we do the original. It's the only way to ensure every single offering is exactly the same as it was when first introduced."

With all the apparent microbiological effort expended in order to keep a historical strain alive, I had to ask whether Bowen felt the work was worthwhile. After all, minor changes are not entirely problematic for most yeast strains. But she explained maintaining tradition was more than simply keeping what might be an antiquated strain alive.

"Much like Canada and the United States, changes will occur. But we hold our traditions to the highest honour. If we didn't work hard to keep ours alive, we would simply be another company selling an alcoholic product. We keep the aspirations and beliefs of our founders alive each and every day. It may not be apparent when you purchase the product but when you taste it, you can be sure it will be exactly the same. That to me is tradition and it's why we work so hard to keep it."

For the two countries about to celebrate, perhaps that might be the best way to show honour. Work hard to maintain traditions we hold dear as our world continually changes.

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