The first time I gave serious thought to yeast strains was the first time I was handed a Rayon Vert from Green Flash.
"It's an Orval clone!" a friend happily proclaimed to me. And they were right -- I had been struggling to put a finger on how I wanted to describe the beer, and that was it. It was an Orval clone. That bright, Belgian character was intensely familiar. It wasn't the malt backbone, and it wasn't the hop profile. It was the yeast.
I had recited yeast facts before then; I'm no stranger to spouting off stories of spontaneously fermented lambics and how brett loves to suck up all available sugar and why saison yeast loves heat. But that taste was Orval, through and through, and there was one very good reason for that.
As a homebrewer, the realization was a little bit of an embarrassment. My first homebrew was a British-style IPA, a recipe derived by looking up recipes for a British mild, boosting the malt extract by a couple of pounds and doubling the hops. I fermented it with White Labs' WLP005 yeast, because liquid yeast somehow made me feel like a "real" brewer and because the label said British Ale Yeast and that sounded about right. The first time I brewed a stout, a professional brewer casually told me that I should just use WLP001 (California Ale Yeast), so I did that. I spent years obsessing over a quarter pound of this grain and what difference hops made added with 30 or 25 minutes in the boil, and then I'd absentmindedly throw a vial of yeast onto the counter because yeast is part of beer.
I've spent the last five years in San Francisco, and those years have coincided perfectly with a local obsession over locally-sourced ingredients. We're spoiled due to a climate that's conducive to growing things year round, and that availability tends to feed the passions of people who care about where the things they consume come from. The explosion of craft beer over the last decade, here, in the home of Steam Beer, continues to reflect how grateful people are for what we can home grow.
Ale Industries makes their Golden State of Mind with local grain, Anchor Brewing makes their California Lager with Cluster hops. Drake's has made versions of Drakonic with Blue Bottle, Marin Brewing partners with Tcho for their Chocolate Airporter, and the gentlemen over at Almanac have endless stories about their sources, from the farmers who grow their pumpkins and grapes and strawberries to the bees that make their honey. Wine has a slight advantage on the beer industry when ranking Bay Area exports, but breweries are happy to collaborate there as well: Heretic uses Grgich Hill Estate Chardonnay barrels to age Worry, Sebastopol newcomers Woodfour use local pinor noir barrels for their Summer Ale and Belgian Dubbel, and Russian River has a long-standing history of reusing wine barrels for their sour projects. The best part? We don't seem to be close to a saturation point -- the demand on the consumer side rises by the day, and the will to collaborate on the producer side continues to thrive.
It comes as little surprise, in a region so focused on where its food comes from, that the beer industry would shift its focus to the origin of its ingredients. Local breweries have sourced grain and hops from local farmers for years, but recently many breweries have focused on culturing their own yeast. Jesse Friedman of Almanac Beer Co. explains his story behind their recent Dogpatch Sour:
"As our sour program has evolved, we knew we wanted to develop our own house culture with its own characteristics and flavors that we could use across several sour beers. You can buy great commercial examples of lacto, pedio and brett, but we wanted something with a lot of "umph."
So, we took a bit of inspiration from New Belgium's sour program. Eric Salazar explained that their house sour culture is extremely robust, and when a lab exampled it, the results came back showing that they had an extremely diverse sour culture with hundred of different strains of wild yeast and bacteria.
To kick start ours, we went back to our homebrew roots: we threw a party, and invited friends to bring their favorite sour beers that have live yeast in the bottle. We kept the dregs from a few dozen bottles of our favorite American and Belgium-brewed sour beers. We even included some homebrew made with SF Sourdough yeast. After growing it up a bit at home, we turned the culture over to Gigayeast, who put it under the microscope, split up the different strains, and keep a backup of the yeast library for us. They then grew it into a commercial pitch, balancing the different bugs for us to create a tart, brett-kissed starter that balanced sour and funky flavors."
Jim Withee of Gigayeast echoed Jesse's sentiments on his side of the process, adding "Almanac was already making delicious sours using a blend of Brett and Lacto, but he wanted to stretch out and do something a little different. He wanted bigger flavors and a faster sour. He provided us with a mixed culture and we characterized its components in our lab and figured out how to grow it efficiently to high density. His results have been fantastic."
Examining the recent interest in local yeast from a practical angle, Withee continues: "The Bay Area is the perfect place for a yeast lab. Yeast is heavy and perishable so shipping can be expensive. By being in an area with a lot of local craft breweries, we are able to provide free overnight shipping of the freshest yeast to our local customers."
Predictably, with new yeast comes a new level of experimentation in the brewing process. Jesse adds: "Our new process with our house sour culture involved doing a week of primary fermentation in stainless before move the beer -- still fermenting -- into barrels. Our Dogpatch Sour is the first beer to use this new process, and we're thrilled with the results.
"Our approach to brewing sour beers has evolved over time: for the early batches, we pitched a variety of bugs -- some lacto only, some brett only -- in different barrels so that we could have options when it came time to blend the barrels back together. Blending really gives us another opportunity to put our stamp on the beer. It's amazing how much variation there can be from barrel to barrel for beers that should be essentially 'the same.'"
Homebrewers interested in joining the yeast revolution need not despair: due to high demand, GigaYeast now produces their Gold Pitch yeast for five gallon batches, available at local homebrew shops. For the more experimental homebrewer, Rob Conticello of Clandestine Brewing shared his thoughts on smaller-scale experiments:
"The easiest way to harvest yeast is directly from a beer that you brewed that just finished fermenting. The yeast has replicated well over 10x, so when you pitched your yeast starter with a little yeast, by the end of the fermentation process there is a whole bunch of yeast.
Unfortunately, the yeast is mixed with a whole lot of other gunk (called trub), basically fats and protein matter from the hops and grain that you really have no interest in and need to separate out. You also need to pick the correct layer of yeast -- the bottom layer of the yeast tends to be the lazy or unhealthy yeast which didn't do much work and dropped out of solution first. Using this layer in the next beer would be a bad idea; it would mean that your beer would likely underattenuate and perhaps be a little bit sweeter and less alcoholic than you'd like."
The most exciting thing about the beer scene in the Bay Area in 2013 is the ever-expanding potential to be educated. The Bay Area makes great beer, and we're lucky to have so many options at our disposal. That these newly minted brewers are willing to share their expertise is a great sign for the long-term health of the scene.
There's been a lot of discussion about what the saturation point will be for craft beer, and it seems natural that supply and demand will even out at some point. But this solidifying relationship between home brewers, micro brewers, and local ingredient sources should last at any equilibrium point. We'll theoretically be left with a stack of great breweries, great beers, and great yeast.
Either way, the craft beer drinker should be set. Thanks to the desires of local brewers to understand where their ingredients come from, imbibers have one more point in their favor: the ability to try beers with brand-new local yeast strains that taste completely different from those that came before.