In A Nutshell
The National Collection of Yeast Cultures (NCYC) currently stores around 4,000 different types of yeast, including those for baking and brewing. Some of their strains are used in the fermentation of specific beers—a trade secret, if you will. When the Jennings Brewery was all but destroyed in a flood, they lost their age-old yeast strain, used to brew one of the last remaining real ales. There was a backup stored at the NCYC, though, and they were able to keep working. Along with saving beer, they’re also doing some groundbreaking research on things like food spoilage and cancer. They’re also trying to track the evolution of yeast and, in turn, the development of life on Earth.
The Whole Bushel
Admittedly, the National Collection of Yeast Cultures does a lot more than just preserve a critical ingredient in the creation of a number of beers, but that’s a pretty important function.
For more than 65 years, the folks over at Britain’s NCYC have been collecting yeast cultures from all over the UK. They have more than 4,000 different strains of yeast, including yeast that’s been used for brewing and for baking, along with specially cultivated strains bred for a specific purpose.
Why, you might ask? For a few different reasons, one of which is saving endangered beers.
In 2009, a flood destroyed much of the Jennings Brewery. The Cockermouth brewery is one of only a handful of places still around that brews proper ale, the dark stuff that you don’t so much drink as chew. Part of the reason that no one can get it right anymore is that it requires a certain type of yeast. During the fermentation process, the yeast for a real ale needs to stay at the top rather than sinking to the bottom. When Jennings was flooded with 3 meters (10 ft) of water, their yeast was washed away by the encroaching rivers.
Enter the NCYC.
Jennings had already given a portion of their trademark yeast to the organization for safe-keeping, so when the flood swept away their working samples and their equipment, it didn’t put another nail in the coffin of real ales. The yeast was preserved especially for brewing, along with 800 similar types of brewing yeast, in freeze-dried powder form.
They can also reproduce the yeast. If you’re a home brewer looking for the chance to recreate a frosty beverage made with the same yeast that was used in the Roaring Twenties, for example, you can do that. The NCYC sells samples of their yeast, meaning that anyone who’s wanting to do some serious brewing themselves can be really authentic and recreate the taste of a World War II–era ale or a 1950s plum mead. Lager from 1950s Japan? They have that, too.
While that’s pretty awesome, there’s a more serious side to their work. A part of the Institute of Food Research, a lot of the work that they do is based in finding out more about yeast itself and our relationship with it. Areas like food spoilage, pharmaceuticals, the chemical industry, and even cancer research have a lot to do with the various strains of yeast, and in addition to preserving the yeast strains we know, they’re also looking at what those strains can do and identifying new ones.
Yeast is also a pretty basic life form, and researchers are looking to it to help shed light on how life on Earth came about. With so many different strains of yeast, it’s thought that hidden in the genetic code of yeast is a clue to how yeasts evolved and, in turn, how evolution works on a genetic level. Since ribosomal DNA (rDNA) is found in all living things, cracking the code in yeast has the potential to allow us to track evolution across continents and look back through a sort of genetic clock.