New Belgium Gets PAC’d: The Politics Of Good Beer

To produce quality beer, you need clean water.  To maintain clean water, you need laws that protect groundwater and waterways.  To draft, implement, and enforce laws that protect groundwater and waterways, you need politicians willing to support those efforts.  This need for political heft behind clean water legislation, thus providing the nation with quality beer, brings us to the new Political Action Committee (“PAC”) formed by New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, perhaps best known for its Fat Tire Amber Ale.

New Belgium has always been clear about its political leanings; its commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable practices is part and parcel of its brand identity and company culture.  Its website proclaims:

At New Belgium, we believe in using every tool at our disposal to create the vibrant future we envision for the earth and her inhabitants. In addition to minimizing our resource consumption, collaborating in our value chain, promoting business practices which empower people and create right livelihoods, and a generous philanthropy program, we advocate for environmentally and socially responsible policy.

The Brewery filed on July 30, 2014 to start the New Belgium Federal PAC, with the mission to donate to like-minded political candidates and to support causes important to craft brewers.  While specific candidates have not yet been named, the PAC aims to become involved in policy and legislation around water conservation, sustainable agriculture, and smart transportation.

For example, a recent blog on the New Belgium website advocates for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) proposed changes to the Waters of the U.S. (“WOTUS”) rule, which defines the surface water that is eligible for federal protection.  Andrew Lemley, the Brewery’s government affairs representative, explains that the changes would expand the water that is eligible for regulation by the EPA to include headwaters and tributaries, in addition to specified rivers and lakes.  He states: “This clarification makes common sense: water bodies that are connected to rivers should be safeguarded like those rivers themselves.”

Additionally, the New Belgium Federal PAC will support the Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce Act (“Small Brew Act”).  The Small Brew Act would expand the population of brewers eligible for reduced excise taxes under the Internal Revenue Code from those that produce only 2 million barrels per year to those that produce up to 6 million barrels per year.  In this effort, New Belgium’s PAC will stand opposed to the PACs of beer giants like Anheuser-Busch and Coors.

New Belgium may be the little guy amongst brewery federal PACs, but it is a giant in the world of craft brewing, as the third-largest craft brewer by volume in America.  While its PAC activity could alienate some beer lovers and other breweries, the New Belgium Federal PAC has potential to provide new opportunities for partnerships as well as for interaction with local communities.

Flies, humans, and yeast: bizarre love triangle

Scientists have officially demonstrated that humans are not the only species attracted to that bready, malty, sometimes-fruity-sometimes-flowery smell of beer, and more crucially, not the only species to incorporate beer as a finished product into its reproduction strategy.

The project was seeded about 15 years ago, when a messy graduate student returned to lab after neglecting his experiments for a weekend to find that escaped fruit flies from a neighboring lab had invaded a flask accidentally left on a counter that contained a wild yeast culture, but ignored a different flask that contained an altered yeast strain.  Years later, these same Belgian researchers have discovered the molecular mechanisms underlying the fruit flies’ flask preference.  These mechanisms create an aroma-based communication and mutualistic symbiosis between the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and the brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiaeThe work involved four main experiments, using a combination of molecular, behavioral, and neurobiological techniques.

The scientists’ first step was to manipulate the yeast genes to create different types of yeast for comparison in the planned experiments.  It is commonly known that yeast is responsible for many of the aromas and flavors of beer through its production of acetate esters such as ethyl acetate (pear), isoamyl acetate (banana), and phenylethyl acetate (flowery).  These acetate esters are formed in a reaction that is catalyzed chiefly by an enzyme called ATF1Using genetic engineering techniques, the Belgians were able to create yeast “mutants” that lacked the ATF1 gene, rendering them unable to produce those acetate esters with such “fragrant” fly-enticing aromas.

The next step applied behavioral techniques to detect a preference in the fruit flies for either the un-modified yeast (“wild-type”) or the yeast lacking ATF1 (“mutant”).  The scientists set up a computer-controlled chamber wherein aromas from different yeast fermentations could be released from opposing corners.  The flies remained randomly dispersed in the chamber while odorless air was released, but once airflow contained aromas from fermentations, they significantly preferred the chamber quadrant with the “fragrant” wild-type aroma (with acetate esters) over the quadrant with “bland” mutant aroma (without acetate esters).

To probe the neuronal mechanisms underlying this behavioral preference, the researchers used calcium imaging in the antennal (olfactory) lobe of live flies.  When they compared neural activity in response to mutant yeast compared to wild-type, they found that the response of projection neurons – which receive input directly from olfactory (smell) sensory neurons – was clearly altered.  The fly brains thus represented the “bland” mutant aroma differently from the “fragrant” wild-type aroma.

While it was clear to the scientists that the yeast provided the flies’ meals, they pondered the advantage for the yeast in employing such scent-related strategies to attract the flies.  Using fluorescent labeling techniques, they demonstrated that “fragrant” wild-type yeast strains were 4 times more likely to be dispersed by a fruit fly than their “bland” mutant peers.  Dispersion provides clear evolutionary advantages because it can make yeast more viable and more likely to reproduce.  In this way, wild-type yeast benefits from being more attractive to flies.

Thus, these Belgian scientists showed that acetate esters produced by yeasts change neural activity in fruit flies, which increases the flies’ attraction to the yeast, and thus increases the potential for advantageous dispersion of the yeast.

Humans demonstrate similar attraction to the aroma of beer in addition to altered neural activity when consuming it, and indeed may use it (perhaps less directly) in the reproduction process.  What’s in it for the yeast?  The answer may be the same: increased reproduction, in the form of purposeful cultivation.  The yeast that is the most successful at creating aromas and flavors that are attractive to humans is the yeast that is isolated and cultivated for future use.

Source: Verstrepen KJ, Yaksi E, Hassan BA, Wenseleers T, Michiels J, Meester LD, Cools TL, Franco LM, and Chstiaens JF. The Fungal Aroma Gene ATF1 Promotes Dispersal of Yeast Cells through Insect Vectors. Cell Reports. 2014.

Equity for Beer Punks

About two weeks ago, I tasted my first BrewDog beer: the 5 AM Red AleRobin ordered it first, inspiring the entire table to join in, and no one regretted her decision.  The beer poured deep amber in color, and the flavor maintained a neat hop-malt balance all the way through.  Rather than elaborating further, I will provide BrewDog’s description, which is a bit more complicated: “Jump in and you’ll find berry bouncing off marmalade clashing with caramel cosying up to chocolate buzzing off spice sizzling with toast laced with lychee and colliding with biscuit.”  In fact, the 5 AM Red Ale was recently named the World’s Best Amber Ale at the 2014 World Beer Awards.

I already want to try another BrewDog offering, and it’s not just because the beer was so tasty.  Indeed, the Scottish brewery just announced the launch of its Development Fund.  After partially funding BrewDog by selling equity through its own Equity for Punks campaign, co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie have allocated £100,000 of their profits each year, as well as their time and expertise, to support other craft breweries as they start up.

In this case, “time and expertise” includes featuring Fund recipients in BrewDog bars as well as introducing them to sales networks.  Watt and Dickie also plan to assist with sourcing ingredients and buying brewing equipment, as well as provide access to BrewDog’s beer laboratory.  For the investment, BrewDog takes a small amount of equity in each start-up brewery, allowing the businesses to grow together.

BrewDog selected two breweries as its first Development Fund recipients: Brew by Numbers (“BBNo.”) from London, and Curious Audacious Products (“CAP”) out of Stockholm.  Brew by Numbers has asserted that its mission is to create “exciting and forward-thinking beers with a focus on quality and drinkability.”  The co-founders emphasize research, experimentation, testing and tasting in their work.  CAP focuses on “playfulness, experimentation and [the] sheer joy of brewing beer,” reflected in their irregular releases of “I’m Curious,” one-of-a-kind-and-never-to-be-seen-again creations.  CAP’s beers feature whimsical sketch drawings of a skull smelling a flower, a musical instrument with a face, a monkey holding umbrellas in the rain, and a whale decked out in a top hat, cane, and pipe.

Given the crowding of the craft beer market, at least in the U.S., it will be interesting to see whether – and where – this business model catches on.  For more established breweries, it is a unique way to “pay it forward,” while maintaining interest in a new business that might help their own business grow.  At the same time, if start-up breweries are willing to give up a small share of their businesses, it increases the likelihood that they will invest in quality resources from the start, to create more innovative and quality products for a growing international market.  As part of that international market, I will continue to support these collaborations, partnerships, and business models that foster such healthy competition with a methodical – but pioneering – spirit.