What are microbes? Microbes are single-cell organisms so tiny that millions can fit into the eye of a needle. They are the most ancient form of life on the planet. Without microbes, we couldn’t eat or breathe.
Anne A. Madden Ph.D is a ‘microbe wrangler’ and beer scientist. That’s right; she has a Ph.D. in brewski. Not really, this remarkable woman is actually a postdoctoral research scientist specialising in microbes and such at North Carolina State University where she and a team of like-minded brainiacs and researchers are trying among other things to make beer taste better using insects, like wasps.
Namely, yeast derived from insects. Yeast is an important little fella and flavour manipulator. It is the foundation of the beer everyone enjoys, the bread we gorge on and even the chocolate we sneak now and then. There are nearly 10, 000 versions of yeast out there but we as a human race only use two to make our food.
Madden’s experiments started a side-project that started as an educational opportunity, one that Anne considered a lower priority became a significant discovery. The project required her to make beer out of a wild yeast – one she happened to get from a common paper wasp.
She handed it to the ‘brewmaster’ (from the department of food science) at NCSU to make into beer, not thinking much of it. The standard perception was that most wild yeast would make food taste terrible. Not this one.
This yeast made a delectable beer, one that blew Anne’s mind. The find widened the potential for flavour exponentially.
Like Anne said in her TEDx talk, “for the last 150 years, flavours have been good, but they haven’t been great.”
Anne and the team she works with want to find the great, the fantastic. They want to discover the hidden flavours all around us that will electrify our palates. Did you think a bumble bee would make an amazing cider? Well, it does.
So far they’ve created a range of food and beer from yeast found in insects, and the result is nosh like sourdough bread and a range of ales.
loaded caught up with this impressive (and gorgeous) human to learn more about the world in and around us. Also, beer.
loaded: Hello Dr. Madden, thank you for speaking to loaded. As we are a men’s magazine, our readers are (obviously) huge fans of beer. Your originative work with all things brew is right up their ale-y (pardon the pun). First off, please explain how you connected wasps to beer.
Anne: The story of wasps and beer is really a story of sugar. The group of microorganisms that make beer are called yeast. They love sugary places in the world-think tree sap, nectar in a flower, or a rotting fruit. They even love spilled sugary drinks. Many insects in the world share this love for sugar. It turns out some of these insects, like wasps, act as an airplane for certain yeast species, shuttling them from sugary place to sugary place when they move from grape to grape in a vineyard. They also keep the yeast safe in their bellies when there is no sugary place to be, such as the case in the winter. Therefore when we were hunting for wild yeasts to make beer, we really let the insects do the work of collecting the yeast. We then collected it from them.
loaded: You are an expert on the microscopic organisms that live on insects. What first interested you in our bug friends?
Anne: I’m fascinated by the crazy, diverse, and incredibly powerful microorganisms that live in the mundane locations around us. Bugs just happen to be a great place to look for these microorganisms.
I first started off my research career doing work on poison dart frogs in the rainforests of Costa Rica. There I was surrounded by gorgeous and relatively unexplored species. It wasn’t until later in my career that I realized we are surrounded by such diversity in our homes as well….only the life forms are much smaller. It is shocking to me that we only know about 10% of the microscopic species that live around us! This means we could look at the nest of a common ‘pest’ species of bug that we think we know everything about and discover a new fungal species that lived in it. In fact, in previous research, I did just that! Bugs offer a whole new space to explore where clever microorganisms might be hiding.
loaded: Why paper wasps?
Anne: When I see a paper wasp on it’s papery nest, I don’t see a stinging insect…well, I don’t just see a stinging insect. I see a whole microscopic jungle to explore with species to wrangle. In that nest we’ve found a new fungal species, we’ve found antibiotic-producing bacteria, we’ve found rare microorganisms, and we’ve found yeast that can make better sour beers and new ciders. Just imagine what else is hiding in there! As a professional scientist and yeast wrangler, part of my job is to find out.
loaded: Is yeast underestimated in the beer world?
Anne: I think it’s easy to underestimate yeast. When it comes down to it, they are just infinitesimally small sacks of biological goo that are pretty good at making copies of themselves. They don’t have impressive features like horns or teeth like some animals, and they don’t have the ability to create towering structures or colored flowers like plants. What they can do though is naturally produce some of the most valuable chemicals to society—alcohol! In beer, they also are responsible for producing up to 50% of the flavor and aroma of a beer. They can make beers taste fruity, biscuity, floral, sour (tangy), or as if honey was added. They contribute to how beer feels in your mouth and how it looks in a glass. They help determine the delicate bubble structure that makes up the foam. Without yeast, we’d never have beer. They are really quite impressible little beasts!
loaded: Have you seen this innovation implemented anywhere else?
Anne: At North Carolina State University we patented the use of this yeast species for the process of making beer, particularly making beer with honey flavors and sour beer in record time. This technology was licensed to the company Lachancea LLC in December 2016. That company, in turn, licenses it to brewers who want a whole new tool to play with, and those who want a yeast with an adventure story. While the yeast has already been licensed to at least one commercial brewery in North Carolina, the company is just beginning discussions with other breweries.
loaded: Any interest from big-name beer brands?
Anne: When we mention that we have a yeast that can make a sour beer in a few weeks without off-flavors and without other microorganisms, head brewers at many breweries have been shocked. Whenever we present beers from this yeast at beer festivals, we are asked where people can get the beer and the yeast. I once even had a visitor admit that he had brought a sterile q-tip in his pocket to seal some of the yeast! The technology has only available for licensing since December 2016, and they’ve just started to talk with different groups.
loaded: What does wasp beer taste like?
Anne: “Yum!” is the overwhelming answer we get when we ask people what they think of Wasp Beer at festivals. To be more specific, the very first wasp beer we produced was deliciously tart. The beers made with bumble bee yeast can range from crisp beers with notes of honey, to refreshingly tart beers with a light essence of fruit. The yeast can make sweet beers with low alcohol and a lovely mouth feel, or they can make strong beers with high alcohol. Depending on how the brewer uses the yeast it can be all of these different flavors. Therefore Wasp Beer tastes like many different things—all delightful!
loaded: What beer on the market right now tastes similar to wasp beer?
Anne: Though these yeasts make traditional beer, there’s really nothing quite like it! The flavors of some of the Wasp Beers are similar to some premium sour beers, but while those may have taken 6 months to a year to make, or include diverse microorganisms—like those that live in yogurt or in between your toes, wasp beer is different. It comes from a yeast unlike any other. With the Bumble Beer that is sweet, head brewers at renowned breweries have sworn that we added honey to the beer…but we didn’t, it was just the yeast.
loaded: What are the health benefits of wasp beer?
Anne: They have yet to be explored.
loaded: Am I wrong to keep calling it wasp beer?
Anne: Wasp Beer was the name of the first beer we ever brewed with the yeast that came from wasps. Since then, John Sheppard-our teammate who is the head brewer at North Carolina State University and the CEO of Lachancea LLC, has made a number of beers with it and some of our other insect yeasts, as have some of our industry partners. These have included beers that have been showcased at various World Beer Festivals, museum events, and at breweries. They have had names such as “Bumble Beer, Stumble Beer, Wasp Beer, Sour Bee, Sour Wasp, etc.” We tend to refer to them collectively as “Wasp Beer.”
loaded: What does the future of insect-derived beer look like?
Anne: Insect-derived yeasts offer new tools for brewers to work with to create new masterpieces. From these insects we’ve found a whole lineage of yeast that can naturally make beer with new flavors. They offer the promise of making your future favorite beer flavor.
Thanks for speaking to loaded Dr. Madden!
Wasp beer was first developed at North Carolina State University by a team of researchers including John Sheppard, Ph.D., Rob Dunn Ph.D. and Anne A. Madden, Ph.D. The technology has since been licensed to a spin-off company that licenses and propagates these yeast- Lachancea LLC. Both Drs. Sheppard and Madden have financial ties to this company.
For more information about research going on related to the crazy organisms that live around us see the lab website of RobDunnLab.com. To find out about research, Anne A. Madden has been involved with go to www.AnneAMadden.com. To learn about the yeast go to www.Lachancea.com.
Loaded staff writer Danielle De La Bastide has lived all over the planet and written for BuzzFeed, Thought Catalog as well as print publications throughout the Caribbean.