More on the shocking life of yeasts

(Brief Update: Hello Ontario! Did I attract the attention of a Toronto homebrewing club or something? Anyway – welcome!)

I am amazed at how much depravity I uncover as I explore the mystery that is
Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

I’ve previously discussed how the filthy little beasts have drunken orgies and exchange sexually transmitted diseases with each other. Now I find out the inebriated little jerks are peeing in my beer, possibly to try to give me cancer!

No, seriously. Given enough “Free Amino Nitrogen”, for example in the form of the pirate’s favorite amino acid, like tiny little single-celled bladders, the yeast will start excreting extra nitrogen in the form of Urea all over whatever they’re growing in.

Of course, the whole time they’ve also been excreting ethanol. It turns out, under certain conditions urea (more formally known as “carbamide” nowadays) and ethanol will combine like drunken evil “Wonder Twins” to form Ethyl Carbamate.

Front Cover of the bookI ran into this as I was reading through my shiny new Wine Microbiology book, which has two pages on this yeast pee byproduct. An article linked to from fark.com recently reminded me of it and prompted this post.

To be honest, this seems a lot like the acrylamide media circus (compare the two links…) that popped up back in 2002. In both of these cases, we’re talking about a substance that occurs as a natural result of the preparation process rather than some new industrial chemical, and in both cases the processes in question have been around probably since prehistory. And in both cases, the real situation seems to boil down to something like “pay attention to your preparation technique, and if you try to live entirely on a diet of overcooked French fries and dessert wines, you might be at an increased risk for cancer.” QED. Or perhaps DUH.

Other than not trying to live on a French McDonald’s diet, there are some things you can do when you brew to limit ethyl carbamate formation. Put very simply: don’t overfertilize your grapes because that can directly lead to unnecessarily high levels of nitrogen available in your wine, and don’t leave your bottles of brew in hot conditions for long, because ethyl carbamate forms faster in hot conditions.

There, problem solved. A more detailed “ethyl carbamate preventative action manual” may be found here. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure our favorite drunken little micro-hedonists are too busy partying and making our wines and beers to be plotting our cancerous dooms.