The recent start-up of several full-scale ‘second generation’ ethanol plants marks a major milestone in the development of Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains for fermentation of lignocellulosic hydrolysates of agricultural residues and energy crops. After a discussion of the challenges that these novel industrial contexts impose on yeast strains, this minireview describes key metabolic engineering strategies that have been developed to address these challenges. Additionally, it outlines how proof-of-concept studies, often developed in academic settings, can be used for the development of robust strain platforms that meet the requirements for industrial application. Fermentation performance of current engineered industrial S. cerevisiae strains is no longer a bottleneck in efforts to achieve the projected outputs of the first large-scale second-generation ethanol plants. Academic and industrial yeast research will continue to strengthen the economic value position of second-generation ethanol production by further improving fermentation kinetics, product yield and cellular robustness under process conditions.