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UK brewers store yeast strains at Norwich Research Park

28 October 2022

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Norwich Research Park is a global centre of excellence for science that also hosts the UK’s National Collection of Yeast Cultures (NCYC). Around 4,400 strains of yeast, some more than 70 years old, are preserved at the Quadram Institute based on the campus.

Brewers store the purist strains in case they want to use them again in the future. The yeast collection was first founded in 1948 when British brewers realised the value of their yeast cultures and put them in safe deposits to keep them secure. There are now more than 600 brewing strains in NCYC’s present collection. NCYC also stores a wide range of food spoilage yeast that is able to evade conventional food preservatives.

NCYC offers commercial services, delivered under the trading name of QIB Extra Ltd. It provides bespoke research and market-leading services for the food, health and allied industries. Importantly, the profits made from these activities are reinvested to help run the collection and contribute funds to other research at the Quadram Institute.

NCYC business development manager Carmen Nueno-Palop said: “As a culture collection, we regularly revive strains that were deposited more than 50 years ago. This highlights the importance of the work and role played by our predecessors in collecting and storing the strains for generations to come. You feel a sense of responsibility when opening the strains that have been dormant for so many years, some even before we were born.”

Image: National Centre of Yeast Collection (NCYC) business development manager Carmen Nueno-Palop – Credit: Andrew Kahumbu Photography

NCYC offers its services to a wide range of customers – from academia to industry and small companies to multinationals. Academic customers often need yeast strains for their research. Customers in the beverages, food, additives and flavours, biotech and pharmaceutical industries need strains in different formats as well as a varied range of services. These include a confidential safe deposit yeast bank, where strains are stored confidentially. The cultures can be retrieved and made available at the instruction of the depositor.

All strains are preserved by one of two methods to guarantee long-term storage. The primary method uses cryo-stocks liquid nitrogen storage to ensure the strains are kept at a temperature of -196C. The other method uses freeze-dried ampoules to allow strains of pure yeast to be dried and stored in glass vials under a vacuum seal.

Another service is yeast authentication, where NCYC uses deposits to verify the authenticity of strains used in food and beverage manufacturing, which is valuable for important production strains.

Yeast spoilage is a tricky problem. In industry, yeasts are usually seen as the good guys and it is often hard to detect and deal with wild spoilage strains, which can contaminate a food product or ingredient. This can be problematic because spoiler and non-spoiler strains can belong to the same yeast species. For example, it is not unknown for beer to be spoiled by wild yeast such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which belongs to the very same species as the brewing yeast itself.

NCYC can make an accurate diagnosis to characterise and identify yeast species so that spoiler strain contaminants can more easily be identified, which is particularly important when dealing with yeasts that pose severe threats to products such as uncooked dough, jams and preserves, fruit juices, yoghurts, sauces and a variety of soft drinks.

Not all companies have propagation plants and Quality Control labs, so NCYC offers a reliable propagation service to provide bigger volumes of fresh, pure yeasts that are customised to the needs of small and medium-sized breweries and food producers who require large volumes of yeast. Customers who have stored strains in the yeast bank can choose those or any yeast strain from its extensive collection, supplied in the desired volumes of bulk yeast.

Carmen said: “Being part of a bigger institute is valuable for NCYC as we benefit from the interactions with the research community but also from the infrastructure that the Quadram Institute has to offer. An example is our liquid nitrogen storage – home for our master stock of cultures. The Cryo-suite at QIB enables us to guarantee long-term storage at -196C.”

NCYC works with customers across the country and internationally as well as local breweries including St Peter’s, Green Dragon and Woodforde’s.

St Peter’s Brewery Co technical director Keith Hayes said: “It’s a real benefit to have this national collection available. Yeast production is a complex and time-consuming process, so it’s great that we have such a valuable facility that will preserve yeasts from the past and present. NCYC provides companies like ours with a valuable service that we wouldn’t have been able to do ourselves.”

CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership LLP Roz Bird said: “NCYC is a great example of where the ground-breaking science at Norwich Research Park is being employed to help some of the country’s most important industries. At the same time, it has successfully commercialised its services so that it can retain its independence and also contribute to more valuable research undertaken at the Quadram Institute.”

Main Image: Cryo-stocks liquid nitrogen storage ensures that strains are kept in a specially designed drum under at a temperature of -196C! – Credit: Andrew Kahumbu Photography.

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