The world’s first probiotic beer was concocted right here in Singapore. So will it change the hearts, minds and gastrointestinal flora of people?

If there’s anything that neatly sums up Brewerkz head brewer Dmitrii “Mitch” Gribov’s career, it’s his latest project: brewing the world’s first probiotic beer. To be more specific, it is a raspberry sour christened Red Billion. It’s the first product in a planned series of probiotic beers launched by Probicient, a collaboration between the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Food Science & Technology and deep‐tech start‐up specialist Origgin Ventures.

“Brewing is easy in a nutshell,” Gribov shares somewhat matter-of-factly over a Zoom interview. “But the devil is in the details.” Similarly, producing probiotic beer is “ideologically simple”—just add pre‐propagated probiotics during brewing—but it’s a process fraught with many devils (about SG$1.5 million and four years’ worth, to be exact).

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To start off, there were logistical challenges. The four-year course of the project saw several changes in personnel, including Gribov (who has been brewing professionally for more than seven years and was previously the brewer at Master Gao Brewing Co in China), who took over the project from his predecessor at Brewerkz. No thanks to the pandemic, the labs at NUS were also closed for a period.

Then there were the technical challenges. Probiotics, which are microorganisms that improve gut flora, do not usually play well with everything that makes beer, well, beer. Ethanol and hop acids kill off microorganisms, while yeasts can compete for the same resources as the probiotics. To make the beer probiotic-friendly, it could not be hopped and had to be below a certain alcohol by volume threshold.

“We’ve had to reimagine beer,” shares Gribov. “We brewed more than 20 test batches in over three years. We tried different yeast as well as probiotic strains. Because they’re co-fermented at a low temperature, they have to work well together. Sometimes, the probiotics stressed the yeast out, which excreted unwanted flavour and aromatic compounds. Sometimes, the yeast affected the probiotic count. Sometimes, they worked well  together, but the flavour needed a lot of dialling in.”

It was also during the arduous research process that the sometimes-conflicting visions of stakeholders surfaced. Gribov’s academic partners, whose research led to probiotics that can survive the brewing process, were concerned with “making the probiotics happy”, so they can multiply and survive. Gribov, though, was concerned with making delicious beer. “I brought up the fact that in order to be considered beer in some countries, the product has to have hops,” he says. “But in almost four years of working together, you find all the wrinkles and iron them out.”

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The big question: what does Probicient’s raspberry sour taste like? It’s unhopped, hazy and an appealing deep shade of salmon thanks to the pronounced presence of raspberries. While not exactly fitting into any conventional beer style, the probiotic parts add the unmistakable rounded tang of lactic acid found in lambics or Berliner Weisse, making it a highly crushable beverage.

A serving of Red Billion comes with one billion colony forming units (CFU) of probiotics—enough to confer a health effect, but not so much that there’s a danger of overconsumption. For perspective, Gribov shares that the regular probiotic supplement he takes is a dose of 25 billion CFUs. At 25 servings of beer, overdosing on probiotics would be the least of anyone’s concerns.

While the intersection between beer drinkers and probiotic seekers might seem tenuous at first, one only needs to walk into any convenience store in Asia to find evidence of the popularity of probiotic drinks—and the demand for variety in beer.

Gribov lets on that he was “a little worried about the marketing and sales future of this at first, but now, we cannot make enough to keep up with demand. We brew bigger and bigger batches, and our [Brewerkz] outlets keep saying they need more.”

This is just the “tip of the iceberg” for Gribov, who believes that drinks such as Red Billion are the future of the US$110 billion-and-growing functional beverage market. He shares that probiotics, which can be bacteria or yeasts, might possibly be engineered to withstand hop acids, making hopped probiotic beers possible. Yeasts, whose primary purpose in beer making now is to excrete ethanol, could be modified to also spit out gluconic acid, which boasts health benefits.

While none of this has been done yet, there is at least one person—Gribov—thinking about it, and the possibilities seem endless.

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