When beer drinkers think of beer flavor, it’s likely their mind gravitates toward the bitter bite of hops exemplified in India Pale Ales. They may even consider the grain bill’s effect, like how a blend of dark malts can lend hints of chocolate to a porter or stout. Most may not think of the role yeast plays in flavoring beer, however.
While it’s necessary to consume sugars and produce CO2 and alcohol, it also becomes a tool for creativity. Different varieties give off unique tastes, plus yeast can produce secondary elements. For instance, esters provide a fruity flavor, while phenolics offer a smidge of spice. One local brewery is playing into this phenomenon with both curiosity and a scientific approach.
Broomtail Craft Brewery and The Sour Barn owner Barry Owings hails from a scientific background. It’s been a driving force behind the decisions made at his two facilities since Broomtail opened in 2014.
“Beer is typically more than 90 percent water,” he explains. “Many debate the significance, but as a water chemist, and one who has tested and brewed with many custom water types for over 30 years, I can assure you, water makes a difference. It is critically important to match the water to the style, if you want to match a style.”
With such attention to detail, Owings has brought in both water and fermentation scientists and biologists to the team, which proves especially helpful in Owings’ latest endeavor: gathering yeast from New Hanover County for brewing.
“For our new creations using locally harvested yeasts (or bacteria), we still cater the water, to the taste we desire in the end product,” he continues. “All living creatures have a preferred specific nutrient or micro-nutrient and/or ratio of these nutrients. Our fermentation scientists and water chemists work together to ensure the wort meets the analytical specifications for taste and the health of our yeasts. Happy yeasts make better beer.”
Owings coined the term “wild but clean” to describe the batches—an ode to his creative use of found ingredients while maintaining his beers are not tainted by unintended elements. “These are beers brewed with our wild harvested yeast, and yet we have cleaned the yeasts and ensured they are indeed clean Saccharomyces,” Owings says of the strain most used in brewing. “The beers do not have the ‘funky’ flavors donated by Brettanomyces or the souring donated by Lactobacillus [bacterias]. In some beers we also include herbs or fruit. We absolutely love these creations, as they are specific to our process and are tied to our local terroir.”
For the last three years, Broomtail biologists have been scouring the area. The first pilot batch released in December 2017 was fermented with yeast harvested in the Japanese Garden of the New Hanover County Arboretum. “This yeast developed a clean yet peppery flavor with low flocculation—perfect for a hazy wheat beer,” Owings tells. “In the pipeline for future batches are yeasts from Poplar Grove, Wrightsville Beach, locally grown pineapple guava, Middlesound Loop, The Sour Barn beer garden, Kings Grant, Broomtail beer garden, and the original site of Broomtail home brew.”
The group is hunting for local bacteria as well, which is used to produce the deliciously funky or sour aspects. They have found Lactobacillus in many samples; however, by far, their favorite has been harvested from Pindo Palm fruit. “It gives an awesome fruity flavor and has wicked sour power,” Owings tells. “It does its job much more quickly than many strains of Lacto.”
They’re already serving the beer, which many have likely tasted in their Soured Bucket List Blonde and Galloping Gose series.
Owings and his crew focus on areas where there are fruits, flowers andn a lot of green foliage. They also take into consideration temperature, time of day, and atmospheric conditions. “Some [locations] are very low flocculating, and leave a yeast haze,” he notes. “Some are spicy, fruity or floral—while many are simply not palatable. In many cases, months are invested wrangling, growing, cleaning, and isolating, only to result in a culture we simply do not like; thus the yeast (and the investment) are dumped.”
All told, the process is time-consuming, technical and expensive. The environmental conditions must combine to perfections to capture both yeast and bacteria.
“It is enticed to propagate in a small volume, using specific nutrients and incubation at the perfect temperature,” he continues. “Once everything wild has ‘shown up,’ the ‘bug farm’ is plated on various types of media which each will help us determine the ‘bugs’ present.”
The team then takes the farm under a microscope to analyze levels of magnification and with various stains. It helps determine the type and broad identification of the yeast and bacteria.
“After we have this 30,000-foot view of the bugs, then the real work begins,” Owings describes.
The next step is literally removing one perfect cell of the preferred perfect yeast from a cultured/plated solution. It grows on a plate, in order to reproduce into perfect colonies. “If anything foreign shows up,” he notes, “it all starts over. If this one replicates itself, then we move to a tiny solution of sterile wort.”
The propogation is not a quick process, especially to fill a 5-gallon batch. But once it has completed, they hold a taste test to determine if they like the flavor, the beer type it best fits, and if the yeast is appropriate with attenuation, flocculation, growth rates, and acid development.
“If it is perfect,” Owings tells, “then we continue to propagate from five gallons to one barrel, to seven barrels, etc. Once we have a strain that we can continue to harvest and propagate successfully, these will be sent for sequencing to drill down the exact strain in case we decide to share with homebrewers or other breweries.”
While the team at Broomtail and The Sour Barn are busy perfecting their harvest, Owings continues to invest in the future by purchasing a new copper coolship. The large, open vessel is used for cooling wort and allowing for spontaneous fermentation. Such equipment is employed by renowned Belgian sour brewery Cantillon, and in the States at Allagash. Spontaneous fermentation, in short, is where liquid is fermented by the microbes that waft in through the natural surrounding air. Nothing can be added by the brewer. To take it a step further, Owings is crafting beers via the Méthode Traditionnelle, a process with specific standards set for brewers outside of Belgium to honor and respect the Lambic tradition.
“We have not yet released our first Méthode Traditionnelle M.T. Or M.T. III [three-year blend] product, yet these are in the works,” he tells. “Currently, the products we have released were indeed fermented with locally harvested yeasts but not fully spontaneous. The M.T. and M.T. III products have been fully fermented with spontaneous fermentation, and in the case of M.T. III properly blended and re-fermented according to the standards. Like the yeast wrangling program, this is a long process, but stay tuned for some awesome beers with this designation in the future.”
To learn more about one of Owings’ breweries, head to broomtailcraftbrewery.com.