DNA-bothering eggheads brew beer you were literally born to like

Red alert: Science mixed with marketing detected


London-based Meantime Brewing Company, acquired a year ago by Belgian beverage multinational Anheuser-Busch InBev, wants to sell you beer tuned to your taste.

To do so, the company plans to direct willing customers to genetic testing service 23andMe – the Silicon Valley personal genomics biz that's slowly emerging from its near death experience at the hands of US health regulators – to evaluate their genetic taste proclivities.

For a mere £25,000 (~$31,200), beer lovers who prefer entrusting purchasing decisions to science rather than self-knowledge can buy 12 hectolitres (about 2,100 Imperial pints or 2,500 US pints) of ale tailored to taste preferences encoded in their genome.

Customers supply their saliva, 23andMe sorts the genes, and Meantime crafts a beer to fit inborn affinities.

"Pioneering personal genetics company 23andMe will assess hereditary variations in your oral taste receptors (the TAS2R38 gene) to reveal the genetic variants that could explain personal preferences towards specific flavour profiles within beer, such as sweetness and bitterness," the company explains on its website.

And if the genetically dictated balance of flavors doesn't align with actual taste preferences, Meantime has left itself an out – customers get a consultation with Brewmaster Ciaran Giblin to adjust the flavors if necessary.

That's almost certainly for the best since, as 23andMe points out, the role of genetics in taste preferences is uncertain. "Scientists aren't yet sure how much of our taste preferences are genetic, but estimates are generally around 50 per cent," the company says in the Taste report it offers subscribers.

The Meantime Bespoke custom brewing works out to £12.5 per pint, about three times the average price of a pint in London last year. For an additional cost, the brewery will consult on the design and production of a vanity label, for those not planning to quaff the batch themselves.

Richard Myers, marketing director for Meantime, in an email to The Register, explained that this is more of an experience than a product, encompassing a one-on-one consultation with the Brewmaster, time with a design agency to create a unique label for bottles, and the opportunity to install a home draught dispenser and to create a laser-etched custom glass.

Asked why customers couldn't just express a preference for what they already know they like, Myers said, "It is true that someone could just tell us whether they like sweet or bitter flavors, however we are interested in how much they really like them. For example, from the test we now understand that Ciaran (our brewmaster and first to try the concept) has an 80 per cent tolerance to bitter flavours. Far higher than he actually thought he would, that led him to create a beer with 100 IBUs (international bitterness units). The one-on-one consultation will provide further insight into the individual's preferences to help create the perfect beer."

Though the service was announced last December, the only person to have indulged in a genetically personalized beer, dubbed Double Helix, is Giblin himself. According to Myers, Giblin likes the result, "but then he did brew it."

At least Meantime is doing the right thing in terms of privacy: It isn't storing customers' genetic data. "The information is shared with the individual via 23andMe," Myers said. "Through the one-on-one consultation, and the consent of the individual, Ciaran will ascertain the relevant information that will help him to create the perfect beer for that person. We will not hold the data, the individual will."

But that hands-off relationship between the two companies suggests customers could just pay 23andMe $199 for a genetic test, log on to its website, check the Reports menu for data in the Taste section, note whether their genes predispose them to sweet or bitter flavors, and then purchase off-the-shelf accordingly.

That might just be missing the point, however.

"Through this concept we hope to show just how versatile beer can be," said Myers. "At Meantime we brew nearly 50 different styles of beer a year, and already go a long way to show just what beer can be. We hope to change perceptions of what proper beer is and show that it's an experience that can both be savoured, shared and most importantly, enjoyed." ®

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