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I Brew, Therefore I am

November 22, 2010


Charlie Schick is an ex-scientist and determined practical microbiologist. He writes about science, media, and other lofty subjects at

Long ago, people discovered that not all food-spoiling processes were harmful. Indeed, people have harnessed fermentation, a spoiling process, to preserve foods – beer, wine, cheese, sauerkraut, cider, kimchee, yoghurt, and, of course, surströmming (you won’t believe what it is).

To me, humans have always been practical microbiologists: we probably settled down to farm barley for beer, one of the oldest pieces of writing is a recipe for beer, and it’s not surprising that early biochemists studied enzymes in the fermentation process.

The ancient (1800 BC) sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi encodes a rudimentary beer recipe

For us DIYbiologists, making foods like beer or yoghurt offers a great way to learn sterile techniques, handling of microorganisms, and many of the principle of microorganism culturing – growth media, inoculation, and strain growth conditions.

I brew beer and make yoghurt. Making yoghurt is stupidly simple. Starters are available from any live-culture yoghurt found in the supermarket. And I use mason jars (usually from spaghetti sauce) for the fermentation.

Brewing beer from malt extract doesn’t require an inordinate amount of time or equipment. Brew shops have various strains of yeast you can use as a starter. And if you’re adventurous, you can capture natural bacteria and yeast to form a starter.

Do you ferment anything? Beer, wine, or cider? Do you use microorganisms for food production?


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  1. November 22, 2010

    Did you see that “corked wine” or “tainted wine” comes from a microbe?

    I love what they do for beer and bread, but admire their work in wine much less 🙂

  2. BurlySquid #
    December 12, 2010

    I make beer. All sorts of beer. I have isolated cultures from various brands and used them in my own recipes. I am not selling it or distributing it, so does that fall under some sort of “fair use”? I bought the yeast (in came with the beer!), so shouldn’t I be able to use it?

  3. M. Hampton #
    December 18, 2010

    I brew beer and mead.

    Its always puzzled me that there aren’t more academic papers on beer yeast strains – the differences are so interesting. The only explanation I have is that most yeast experimentalists like to work with “pure” strains from one individual, and that isn’t the way beer yeast is propagated. There is a lot of scope for further study.

  4. Paul #
    December 31, 2010

    Hi Charlie,
    I catch my own bugs ‘n critters to help make bread.

    I start with whole wheat berries that I pulverize in a coffee grinder. I believe the predominate yeast(s) come on the grain. As an example, think of the white powdery look on blueberries or purple cabbage. That’s wild yeast.

    I put mix the ground wheat with warm water then let it sit either in my kitchen or outside under a bush (covered with a screen to keep leaves and detritus out). It picks up lacto-bacilli from the air. I believe.

    It starts to bubble in a healthy manner and develops an nice grainy odor. Then I incorporate this into a wheat flour/water mixture. Over a matter of months, usually one or a couple strains of bacteria and yeast predominate and edge out the strains that are less viable in my particular environment.

    Some of the cultures I’ve collected have made some very tasty bread. All of them have been quite edible. To each their own, but I like a mild to medium tang. The famous San Francisco sourdough is too sour to my taste for everyday bread.

    Generally, I have began the cultures in warmer weather. Coincidentally, I’ve just begun collecting a New Year culture today. I’ll have to see how it comes out.

    I enjoy the perspective that I don’t make the bread. God makes the bread, using me and the “bugs ‘n critters” to work together feed each other. I work to support many generations of yeast and bacteria just as they work together to feed me. Cool…

    Enjoy your cerveza and yogurt, man!

    • January 9, 2011


      Wow. That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing. You certainly inspired me to do more with these useful bugs.

      Cheers! And happy husbanding of bread bugs!



  5. February 19, 2011

    Hi Charlie,

    Speaking of SCOBY (it really is a cool term), I use a symbiotic culture to brew kombucha according to the following recipe:

    I’ve also experimented with capturing wild yeast with the intent of testing different strains for their baking/brewing characteristics. Haven’t had much luck yet, but am testing methods from 2 diff. co-bloggers you might also find intersting:

    Great blog, by the way – thanks for spreading the word!

  6. oakfarm #
    June 23, 2011

    This was an enjoyable post. I am 32 years old and has no scientific background, so I’ve more or less been thinking that it would be too late for me to start with any kind pf biotechnology. But I have made sauerkraut and kimchi, and lactic acid fermented beets and wine (and of course, I have sometimes failed). And you’re saying that a kind of diy-biotechnology?

    Ps. I’m Swedish, and unfortunately I havn’t tried “surströmming” I haven’t had the opportunity.

    • July 11, 2011

      Oakfarm, indeed, you’re a practical microbiologist! I’ve read about a ton of folks messing around with the microorganisms they use to ferment and cure things. With your skills in transforming foods, that might be a good place to start. You might even consider simple ways to store and characterize the cultures you use in your food.
      Happy experimentation!

  7. Ben #
    December 15, 2011

    Hey Charlie,
    I’ve been obsessed with using microbes in cooking for 8 or 9 years now. I’ve made many types of kimchi (most think it’s inly made with napa cabbage but you should try my baby octopus/bok choy!), sauerkraut, vinegar (not just vinegar infused with aromatics), kombucha, yogurts, naturally carbonated sodas, mead, fruit and vegetable wines (including garlic, onion, and carrot) and of course, what started it all, BEER! After a couple hundred gallons I found the English and German styles of using only one variety of yeast. Aside from the sort of “eugenic-ish” search for an “uber-yeast”, I find it yields a somewhat one dimensional beer. Since 2005 I’ve converted fully to brewing Belgian. Even aside from not having ones hands tied with the Reinheitsgebot (the German purity law banning the use of anything other than H2O, barley, hops and yeast) using a community of yeast, including Brettanomyces (considered a major flavor taint in English and German brewing) enables the brewer to produce a whole world of complexity. Most Trappist ales and Saisons use at least two strains of yeast though the second may be added only after brewing in order to perk up fermentation for bottle conditioning. True Lambics, and Saisons to a limited extent, develop their unique flavors from the local yeasts that have been selected for over the centuries (A common misperception is that the wort is innoculated in the massive shallow “coolship” located in the attic of the brewery where it is sent to cool, in reality it is in the staves that make up the barrels that house the vast majority of the microorganisms live. A similar, though not as common, misperception is that Lambic brewing doesn’t require as much diligence in cleanliness and sanitation. Not so. In fact the barrels are sanitized with steam before every filling. The good yeasts mostly reside a quarter inch below the surface.). I could probably drone on for hours and megabytes about the magical world of fermented foods. My latest fermented forays have been more macro-fungal in character, mushroom logs, bags, beds and in the near future a tissue culture lab in my closet. I’m also planting apple, pear and other fruit trees for cider, perry and other fun stuff.

  8. Chris #
    May 1, 2012

    Beer contains quite a bit of pyroglutamic acid, or PCA. Its the stuff that makes beer sticky. PCA is also good for your brain. So good that it counteracts the effect of the mycotoxin ETOH quite a bit!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. I Brew, Therefore I am | DIYbio | Practical Microbes
  2. Microbiopolitics and the Post-Pasteurian Age | Practical Microbes
  3. Microbiopolitics and the Post-Pasteurian Age | Molecularist
  4. Mjölksyrejästa grönsaker | Oakfarms diy-bio

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