Petar Puškarić is an engineer, ecologist and head of beer production at LAB Split, a craft brewery in Split, Croatia. He graduated with a master’s degree from the department of marine studies at the University of Split last year, after successfully making a beer from Candida famata, a yeast that can be isolated from sea water. He now hopes to brew this sea-yeast beer commercially. He speaks to Nature about some of the challenges in going from dissertation to commercialization.
How did your marine-yeast beer come about?
I’ve had an interest in brewing beer for a long time, and started brewing as a hobby when I was a student. During a marine-microbiology lecture as part of my undergraduate degree in ecology, my mentor Marin Ordulj and I started to talk about marine yeasts, and one question led to another. We wondered whether sea yeast could ferment beer.
We researched the literature and could not find anyone who had made a beer with a yeast isolated from the sea. Perhaps we could become the first to do so? The idea stayed with me for a few years as I continued my degree and moved on to my master’s course. When I came to choose my dissertation topic, I decided it was time to put the idea to the test. I discussed things with Marin, and he agreed to help me plan an experiment. By then, I was working part-time at the LAB Split brewery, so I had some brewing experience to bring to our investigations.
Our first task was to isolate yeasts from the sea. We then tested the fermentation abilities of the isolated yeasts and grew cultures from the most promising samples. Finally, we used those cultures to brew beer.
How did you manage your time between brewing and your degree?
I wasn’t overorganized, but I always made sure to be disciplined and to do whatever was needed as tasks came along. I kept active outside work as well, continuing to play as a mandolinist in an orchestra, for example.
I didn’t think too strictly about my career, and made time to do the things I enjoyed. I’d recommend that other students also try to enjoy life and spend as much time as possible with friends. After all, life is not just about building a career. I was lucky in proposing a graduate topic that I found interesting and that my mentor liked: that helped me through the duller and more difficult moments.
What was the hardest part of the process?
The biggest problem was created by marine bacteria, which would outgrow the yeast colonies and thus make the isolation of yeast more difficult. We tackled this problem by using selective nutrient media, which inhibit the growth of bacteria. Eventually, this resulted in pure yeast cultures.
What did the beer taste like?
The first beer tasting after all that research, thinking and anticipation was really exciting. We noted clove and fruit aromas and a slightly sour tone. It didn’t carry the taste of the sea; the flavour was closest to that of sour beer.
What impact do you hope this work will have?
The beer is an exciting product of my graduate work, but I also hope that my thesis will encourage others to explore in more detail the yeasts in the Adriatic Sea, and to realize their potential in ecology, medicine and nutrition. Split is on the Adriatic coast and I like the idea that we’re contributing in some small way to protecting that coastline.
Sea Cucumber, as we’ve named the beer, might not help much directly in that regard, but I do hope that it could raise awareness about how many useful things there are in the sea.
Are you planning on taking the sea yeast further in your career?
Any experience in microbiology helps in the food industry. Sea yeast might turn out to be useful in brewing, but we have to consider the finances and infrastructure we’d need to support its use commercially. For now, we’re concentrating on brewing more standard beers. In the future, I hope to brew some of my own recipes, whether Sea Cucumber or something else. I would definitely like to combine brewing with the search for new yeasts that can be used not only in beer making, but in other industries as well.