Celebrate Oktoberfest with Beer Chemistry

By Alex Berezow, PhD — Sep 28, 2016
Beer is chemically complex. Many different molecules are responsible for its wide variety of tastes and colors. Some of the least studied are those produced as a result of the Maillard reaction. Famous in kitchens worldwide, this reaction is responsible for the browning of meats and bread that occurs at high temperatures, when amino acids and sugars chemically combine.
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For people who enjoy beer and football (be it the American or European variety), autumn is perhaps the best time of the year. The hot summer has ended, the football season is beginning, and the leaves are turning brilliant shades of amber -- not unlike the cold brewsky on tap. And for many, the climactic event of these annual rituals is the beer-swilling festival called Oktoberfest. 

Beer, one of the world's favorite beverages, is chemically complex. Many different molecules are responsible for the wide variety of tastes and colors associated with beer. Of these, perhaps some of the least studied are the molecules that are produced as a result of the Maillard reaction. This reaction, famous in kitchens all over the world, is responsible for the "browning" of meats and bread that occurs at high temperatures when amino acids and sugars chemically combine. In beer, Maillard reaction products form during the brewing process. 

To better understand the chemistry of beer, a team of German scientists from Technische Universität Dresden measured the Maillard reaction products (MRPs) found in different kinds of beer. Specifically, they focused on the MRPs created when sugar reacts with two specific amino acids commonly found in proteins, lysine and arginine. They chose these amino acids because, in proteins, they serve as important sites of chemical reactions. (The specific MRPs they detected, as well as a portion of their results, are shown below.) 

As shown, pyrraline tended to be elevated in dark beers. However, the authors note that many other MRPs (not examined in this study) are likely the primary factors behind beer color. 

Given the design of the study, the authors were almost certainly hoping to find a reliable way to chemically differentiate between beer types. Unfortunately, because there was so much variation in MRP concentration within beer samples, it was not possible to use MRPs to distinguish between them.

Alas, not all worthwhile investigations yield exciting results. At least they have a lot of beer to drink.

Source: Michael Hellwig, Sophia Witte, and Thomas Henle. "Free and Protein-Bound Maillard Reaction Products in Beer: Method Development and a Survey of Different Beer Types." J. Agric. Food Chem., Article ASAP. Published: 3-September-2016. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.6b02649


Alex Berezow, PhD

Former Vice President of Scientific Communications

Dr. Alex Berezow is a PhD microbiologist, science writer, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science for the American Council on Science and Health. He is also a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and a featured speaker for The Insight Bureau. Formerly, he was the founding editor of RealClearScience.

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