Tech Days on the Frontier of Biotech

Novozymes research scientists gathered for a conference in Davis, CA, and discussed everything from microbes to (the science of) beer.

More than 250 Novozymes scientists were about to begin a barbeque dinner in the courtyard of Novozymes’ Davis, CA, facility when drums started beating, doors flew open and the University of California, Davis, marching band came barreling through.

The freewheeling band with eccentric uniforms and unorthodox dance moves weaved throughout the crowd. The tubas rocked side-to-side, the saxophones careened through the flower beds, and the flute section lost themselves somewhere behind the buffet line. The performance was hectic, creative and delightful – perfectly capturing the innovative spirit of Novozymes Tech Days.

“We chose the Cal Aggie Band because they are so entertaining and not your average marching band,” said Debbie Yaver, a director at the Novozymes Davis facility. “Their energy, innovative spirit and freewheeling style is infectious and parallels well the spirit of the Novozymes R&D Technology Conference.”   

For almost a full week, Novozymes research scientists from around the world attended presentations, seminars, poster sessions and dinners at UC Davis to discuss the new frontiers of biotechnology.

Several external scientists addressed the conference, including UC Davis professor Charles Bamforth. An edited interviews with Bamforth is included below.

Charles Bamforth is the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis. His talk was titled "Beer: All the Proof You Need?” You can view some of his brewing wisdom here:

NZ: You have been an advocate for the health benefits of beer. Why is beer good for you?

Charlie Bamforth: First and foremost it’s good for you as long as it’s done in moderation. It’s pleasurable and enjoyable and a great social catalyst, so as long as people treat it with respect. I always come back to a pub in the north of England. There’s no television or dancing. There’s just beer and conversation and it’s very pleasurable and calming. I’m sure there’s a psychological role. But there’s more than that.

[The health benefit of wine] is vastly overplayed. It’s the alcohol that plays the beneficial role. It doesn’t matter where the alcohol comes from. But beer has much more nutritional value than wine. Silicate is present in beer in large quantity. Beer contains anti-oxidants. Beer contains significant levels of B vitamins. The levels of folic acid represent a significant quality of the daily recommended intake. And it has soluble fiber in significant quantities.

Studies correlate alcohol with various bodily responses. And it’s difficult in this area because people don’t live by beer or wine alone. Drawing correlations is not straightforward and is sometimes dubious.

The beer belly is a complete myth. It’s all about calories in and calories out. It’s about lifestyle.

NZ: What are some of the new trends in brewing?

Bamforth: The most exciting trend is the growth in the craft industry all over the world. I cringe when I say that, because all brewers are craftspeople. They are all dedicated to producing excellent products.

But the newer brewing companies are very exciting. They bring with them different beers. In turn that encourages the bigger guys to experiment. That’s good for the beer drinker, as long as at the end of the day they all recognize that it’s all about quality.

I’m a little bit disturbed when extremes are pushed in terms of crazy ingredients or ridiculously high alcohol content.

There are a lot of different beers. There are a lot of different places you can go to drink that beer. I think that’s good as long people know what they’re doing. They should be capable of making straightforward beers before they start experimenting. The worst beer in the world will be from someone launching straight into a wacky beer.

NZ: What are the technical innovations you see in brewing?

Bamforth: Technically? The brewing industry is a fairly traditional. If you went back 500 years and walked into a brewery you would recognize that it’s a brewery. With technology we have more streamlined, efficient processes. But it’s still the same fundamental thing. The developments are in more and more automation, light sensors, streamlined packaging.

NZ: Can you talk about the role of enzymes in beer?

Bamforth: Brewing is fundamentally is an enzyme-based process. The conversion of barley into malt is because of the enzymes within the grain. In the brewhouse the starch degradation into sugars is an enzyme process in terms of the amylase.

It’s fundamentally enzymes in action. That’s why I joined the brewing industry, I’m a biochemist .

There are still people today that insist the only enzymes that should be used are the ones from the raw material. Equally lots of people have appreciated that there are enzymes that can supplement the process and improve performance. I used to work for a brewer in London that used beta glucanase that, of course if you put that into mash, can improve the breakdown. It was just reinforcing the level of enzymes. There’s a long-standing use of enzymes that break down proteins that improve the shelf life of beer and make sure it doesn’t go cloudy too quickly. There are very good reasons why people would take advantage of novel enzymes.

Glucoamylase allows the brewer to get at all of the starch that is in the grain and eliminate any residual carbohydrate. This is part of the process of making low calorie beers.

NZ: How can biotech companies help the brewers to meet these new trends?

Bamforth: The enzyme approach is clearly is at the heart of this. In a way, it’s a question of educating the brewer. Pointing out to the brewer how and why the use of these enzymes will make their lives easier and will make their product better. Educating them on new options for doing things.

But I think a biotechnology company such as Novozymes needs to recognize that the best way to the heart of a traditionalist is not to suggest that they radically change the process. Brewers use malted barley. There are many people who feel that you don’t need to do the malting process you just use raw barley. But that is a step way too far for most in the brewing industry because they are wedded to malt. The whole notion of using raw grain with enzymes is offensive to many brewers.

The way in which a company can best reach the heart of a traditional brewer is to say this is novel and it will allow you to do things you couldn’t do before. Those are the enzyme solutions. If you could find an enzyme solution to enhance the flavor life of beer, if it’s the only way it could be done, then you’ll get traction.

The way to for a biotech company is to show a new way, but it needs to be within the remit of the existing process and not a remake of the process.

Of course in the future who knows what is going to happen? Biotechnology can produce a beer that is far more environmentally friendly and uses far less water. Come the day that there is a real tax benefit for those things, brewers will adopt that.

NZ: In your opinion, what is the best beer?

Bamforth: The one you like. It’s whatever you want. The best beer is very much in the eye of the drinker. That’s why I never pontificate on any specific brand. What I like and what you like are very unlikely to be the same.

To me a good beer is one that meets expectations. If it’s something you enjoy and it’s very drinkable and it’s a delight from start to finish – and you might even think – I’d like another one of those. That’s the right beer for you.

The one where you see the label and you think, “I had that last week and I really enjoyed it.” And you have it again and it tastes exactly the same. That’s a great beer.

There are so many. And there are so many good beers. Except for non-alcoholic beers. I will say that I do not like those.