When Ontario brewers need yeast to whip up a batch of Bavarian wheat beer, English pale ale, or tart Flemish-style red, most of them tend to order it from one of two giant companies in the U.S. But a growing number are turning to a yeast bank right here in Ontario.
At Guelph, Ont.-based Escarpment Labs, run by three friends who met in a university biochemistry lab, there are dozens of kinds of yeasts in tests tubes, under microscopes, and in freezers, waiting to be ordered up by brewers and turned into flavourful, refreshing brews. There are even some yeast strains developed right here in Ontario, adding their own distinct flavour profiles.
While most people might be more familiar with yeast in a kitchen setting, the fungus is a crucial ingredient for brewers, turning the sugars found in malted grain into alcohol. Each strain leaves its own distinct aromas and flavours.
For Angus Ross, starting up a yeast bank was a way to right an obvious wrong.
“Brewers would be using malt from down the road, hops from a local farmer, water from their municipality, and ordering their yeast from California,” said Ross, who met Richard Preiss in 2013 while they were working together in a biochemistry lab at the University of Guelph.
Both were avid home brewers, and had more than a passing acquaintance with California-based White Labs and Oregon’s WYeast, the giants of the yeast world, who sell different kinds of yeast strains to brewers around the globe.
Yeast banks, as the name suggests, typically store several varieties of yeast, which can be ordered up by customers. For commonly used kinds, the turnaround time between an order being received and being sent out can be as little as a few hours. For more esoteric varieties, it can be several weeks. A frozen batch would need to be thawed out, then grown from a small test-tube batch into enough to ship out a 10-litre bucket of live yeast “slurry,” usually grown in a sweet liquid such as wort (essentially, unfermented beer, with no hops).
Given their biochemistry background, Ross and Preiss figured they could do a pretty good job themselves at what White Labs and WYeast were doing. So, in 2014, they launched Escarpment in a small room at Wellington Brewery in Guelph, along with Niagara College brewing instructor Nate Ferguson, who Ross had earlier encountered at the same university lab where he met Preiss (they subsequently moved to their own facility at a nearby industrial park).
Not that they’re on the same scale, or even close as the U.S. giants. The big firms have a regular stock of 200 or so yeasts that they can ship off on a moment’s notice, while Escarpment has four or five. (There are, Preiss estimates, up to 1,000 yeast varieties that could theoretically be used by brewers, though the vast majority of beer in the world is produced using a handful of kinds). Those workhorses include a few basic ale yeast strains, and what’s referred to as a “Copenhagen Lager” variety, a strain first found at that city’s Carlsberg brewery in the 1800s. On the more unusual end of things, Escarpment also carries a wild yeast strain found on the skin of an apple from a local orchard.
While Escarpment isn’t the only yeast bank in Canada, it is the only one that provides live, liquid yeast, favoured by most brewers. There are two older labs that offer a handful of dry yeast varieties. Being small and local has a similar appeal to the whole craft brewing ethos, as well as the 100-mile diet, slow food, and any other number virtuous food and drink concepts.
But that’s not what Escarpment is counting on to gain customers. They’ve also got to be good, says company co-founder Ferguson.
“If we were local and our quality was s—, we’d be in trouble . . . We’re not a novelty,” he said.
There are plenty of reasons breweries choose to go with Escarpment, some of them more philosophical, others far more practical, says Beau’s All-Natural Brewing CEO Steve Beauchesne, who’s also the vice-chair of the Ontario Craft Brewers.
“Supporting local is a good idea. But the added reason is we want to make Ontario a centre for brewing excellence. With two colleges teaching brewing, and a yeast lab, that helps complete the picture,” said Beauchesne, referring to brewing programs at Niagara College and Durham College.
As a smaller company, Escarpment also tends to try harder, says Beauchesne.
“With the big yeast banks who have hundreds and thousands of customers, you don’t always get the service you’d like,” said Beauchesne.
At Beau’s, and its Halcyon barrel-aged beer subsidiary, there are several Escarpment yeasts being used. But not, just yet, the brewery’s big seller, Lugtread.
“We’re looking at some of our core brands. But you want to be really careful about making any changes to your core brands. People have come to expect them to taste a certain way,” said Beauchesne.
There’s another good reason more Ontario brewers are starting to use Escarpment — shipping a living organism across the border can be an unpredictable enterprise, says Jason Fisher, owner of Junction-area brewpub Indie Alehouse, who use Escarpment for several of their beers.
“More than once, we’ve had a customs agent open up a vial, stick his finger in, and say ‘yes, it’s OK,’ before sending it to us. Thanks. That’s now garbage,” said Fisher. “Active” or live yeast, can be imported, but convincing individual border officials that it’s OK can sometimes be a little sticky, Fisher added.
“Explaining to a customs agent whether it’s alive or not can be difficult. We’re talking about high school scientists here,” Fisher chuckled.