WHAT IF science could make a better beer through genetic engineering?

A faster-fermenting Yuengling. A Guinness Stout with a bigger, foamier head. A Heineken that required less grain. A Budweiser that produced no hangover, no matter how much you drank.

In fact, scientists are already tinkering with the genetic makeup of beer ingredients - and even as Americans seem largely unconcerned about so-called genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Europeans are gearing up to fight so-called Frankenbeer.

In a remarkable show of opposition, about a third of Germany's 1,200-plus breweries have signed a petition to amend the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot (Germany's beer purity law) to ban the use of genetically modified ingredients.

The law - the hallmark of Germany's world-renowned beer industry - states that German beer may be made only with malt, hops, yeast and water. It was established in 1516 to restrict the use of potentially dangerous ingredients (tree bark, poisonous mushrooms) that often found their way into beer. Over the years, Germany's proud brewers have cited the law, and its ban on cheaper adjunct ingredients such as rice and corn, as a symbol of their superior products.

Now, GMO opponents say that if German beer is going to remain pure, the law shouldn't permit ingredients that have been artificially enhanced in laboratories.

"It's against natural creation," said Thomas Weiss, quality manager of Neumarkter Lammsbrau in Bavaria. "Farmers don't want it. Beer drinkers don't want it. The only people who want GMOs is big industry."

(Disclosure: I learned about the anti-GMO petition during a tour of German breweries and hops producers that was sponsored in part by the Bavarian Brewers Association.)

Lammsbrau is Germany's oldest organic beer maker, so it's not surprising it would take a stance against genetically modified ingredients. What's surprising is that so many others would join. Many of the breweries backing the petition are old-fashioned operations where the only thing green is their bottles. Even Warsteiner, Germany's third-largest brewer, has signed on, said Weiss.

What's so bad about better beer through science?

Supporters of GMO crops say they can be more pest-resistant, withstand harsher environmental conditions and have a longer shelf life. They say that, through DNA technology, we can feed more of the world's population.

In America, GMOs are hardly a blip in the public consciousness. When Greenpeace earlier this year charged that Anheuser-Busch was using genetically modified rice in Budweiser, for example, it generated few news reports. (A-B called the charge "false and defamatory," and said its rice strain was approved by federal regulators.)

In Germany, meanwhile, Greenpeace's allegations were widely reported, partly because of an earlier scare over cross-pollination with domestic crops.

There's also a huge political aspect to the debate. To opponents in Europe, GMOs translate to big, bad American capitalism trying to make more money from acres of crops.

"We see all these American companies like Monsanto - which was a big supporter of George Bush - changing the entire agricultural system," Weiss said.

For example, Weiss said, since genetically modified plants are patented, farmers must pay annual fees to corporations instead of using naturally produced seeds to grow new crops. There also are questions about long-term health consequences, he said.

Whether the brewers association amends the Reinheitsgebot is still up in the air. Opponents of the change say it is unneeded because the law already ensures the use of pure ingredients. An association statement on GMOs cries, "Bavarian brewers will have none of this!"

The question is how long breweries - especially the big ones - will be able to resist the lure of potentially cheaper and better ingredients.

About 10 years ago, when genetic researchers announced they were experimenting with faster-fermenting "turbo" yeast, one of Germany's largest newspapers launched a "Hands Off Our Beer" campaign. The brewers association quickly insisted it had no reason to use genetically modified beer ingredients.

Today?

Germany is just emerging from a hops crisis brought on by increasing demand and bad weather. What if genetic scientists could develop hardier, more abundant hops vines?

"It's important to use every technique to guarantee enough food and crops for everyone in the world," said Johann Pichlmaier, president of the Association of German Hop Growers.

Then, straddling the fence, he added, "As long as consumers continue to oppose GMOs, no, we won't use them. . . . But I don't know if we can say 'no' forever." *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.