A taste of science in VIB’s hypermodern brewery

18 March 2018
In a state-of-the-art experimental brewery, Kevin Verstrepen (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology) and his team investigate yeast behavior in large volumes of beer. The brewery bridges the gap between the lab and the industry: it allows scientists to study fermentation in depth and test how their newly developed industrial yeasts behave.

Our new experimental brewery is somewhat hidden between the Dijle river and KU Leuven’s Arenberg
Campus. “It keeps the smell away from the crowds”, brewing engineer Stijn Mertens chuckles. The building houses many large fermentation vessels, of which fourteen are lined up behind a big window. “Brewing beer inherently requires several vessels, but on top of that, we use these fourteen fermenters to compare different yeast variants on one batch of brewed medium”, Stijn explains. “This way, we create better yeasts, helping brewers perfect existing beers or create new ones.”

Flexible testing environment
Creating top-class yeast is largely a matter of persistent testing. “Up until now, fermentation processes were examined in lab conditions on small amounts of beer”, Kevin says. “But the problem is that yeast tends to act differently in a 1-liter flask than in a 50,000-liter fermenter. So, with help from AB Inbev and about 20 other industrial partners, we built the experimental brewery.”

“What makes our installation unique is its potential to run tests on all types of beers and compare many different yeasts at once”, Stijn explains. “Whereas traditional breweries are made to deliver just one specific brew with one yeast, our infrastructure is more flexible, ready to handle beers with different and extreme alcohol percentages and flavors.”

Settling in at the brewery
The beer industry is already reaping the benefits of VIB’s experimental lab. “Several yeasts that we developed, including some producing superior or novel aroma, are already used for commercial beer production”, Kevin says.

“Another trend is the production of beers with extremely high or low alcohol content. In this respect, we also want to investigate stress resistance of yeasts: how do they react to high amounts of alcohol, pressure and extreme temperatures?” Additionally, the brewery is the perfect place to observe how yeasts adapt to their environment. “Yeasts can reproduce sexually, but also nonsexually, by creating clones of themselves”, Stijn
explains. “During this process, mutations start occurring in the population, giving rise to complex Darwinian evolution of sublineages. That’s how beer yeasts acclimatize to life in the brewery. By sampling them, we are able to uncover their mutation patterns. And as they reproduce every two hours, these evolutions are highly visible, making our studies even more exciting.”

Based on an article of KU Leuven Campuskrant by Tine Bergen

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Stijn Mertens and Kevin Verstrepen