In a kind of scandal only afforded stories that centre around vilified populations and national icons, there has been a lot of talk in the Australian media lately about brewing booze with Vegemite. It’s not for the first time, either; iterations of the story have been cropping up for years. The point of this piece isn’t to contextualise or justify a senator’s exaggerated comments, nor the questionable political ends to which they might be put.
Only… it doesn’t seem like anybody has ever actually tried it.
In response to the latest hysteria, Gizmodo cites Sydney-based radio producer ,and science writer Signe Cane, who describes the story as “completely bunk”, while the ABC spoke with Dr Claudia Vickers who said using the yeast in Vegemite to brew liquor was “highly, highly implausible.” That phrase was picked up and reported again by Pedestrian.tv and The New Daily.
Perhaps due to the scarcity and prohibitive cost of Vegemite, the discussion has plenty of speculation, but lacks any actual evidence.
If you ask the Internet, you’re directed to a few beer forums swapping secrets about a disgusting type of home brew and, somehow more troublingly, to blog posts and news articles by science journalists claiming it isn’t possible.
This is not a difficult question to answer, Saccharomyces cerevisiae—baker’s yeast—is a model organism used in laboratories around the world, even mine—and we mostly work with mouse and human cells. Crossing about the distance of the average Australian kitchen, I picked up three basic ingredients to put the question to bed: dextrose, a fancy, pure sugar, that provides carbs for metabolism; peptone, the building blocks of proteins, to speed things up; and yeast extract, a mixture of amino acids, peptides, water soluble vitamins and carbohydrates – as a support and point of comparison.
I brought the Vegemite from home.
Funnily enough, yeast grow best in a bath of their dead brethren, but there is a huge difference between lab-grade Yeast extract and the tasty, tasty substance found in Vegemite. I’m sure lab-grade materials aren’t necessary, and I would be overjoyed if someone repeated this experiment with their kitchen grade equivalents.
The methodology is here in full, but the findings are pretty clear. After twelve hours at about the temperature of a kitchen in summer, a living, white film at the bottom of a bottle full of spread, sugar, and accelerant suggests that the yeast lives—and could feasibly brew.
Of course, this is cursory to the most glaring result of the experiment: a lack of imagination. People with qualifications made sweet hypotheses, which were incubated by the media, and nobody bothered to actually open a cupboard.
If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. And if your results are different, we can celebrate with a drink that isn’t brewed with Vegemite.