Biochemist “Hunts” Yeast for Beer

Have you ever thought about where yeast comes from? It’s obviously an integral part of the beer brewing process. For Indiana based brewer Robert Caputo, the source of yeast proved to be a pain point. Caputo was eager to create a beer that was 100% Indianan. He had sourced malts, hops and water from Indiana with little issue, but was struggling to find yeasts native to the state. Enter his friend, Mathew Bochman.

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Bochman, who refers to himself as the yeast whisperer, is a biochemist at Indiana University Bloomington. His research focuses on how DNA keeps cells intact, but he has a passion that sees him scavenging for wild strains of yeast on the side.

In search for the appropriate yeast, Bochman collected more than 100 samples.

“Whenever I was out and about I would grab something — a piece of bark, a berry — bring it back to the lab and get yeast from it.” The microbes are everywhere, he says. “It’s hard not to find yeast.”

The issue is that not all yeasts are created equal. Those used in brewing beer must be able to live in at least 4-5% alcohol and cannot be hampered by the presence of hops, which are mildly acidic. Assuming a yeast meets these criteria, it also has to taste neutral or better to create a palatable beer.

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In 2015, the team saw success. A wild beer, brewed in an open vat, in an empty lot in Indiana (which sounds super sketchy and not fit for consumption, but what do I know?) worked out as planned. The beer had a pineapple-y, guava-y smell that Bochman attributed to a sweet-smelling ester, such as those that attract fruit flies.

Bochman and Caputo’s experimentation may be of use to the ever-growing market for sour beers. Many sour beers require the addition of lactic acid. The acid necessitates a dedicated set of equipment as it can be difficult to remove all the bacterias when switching to other styles of beer. But five of the yeast strains studied possess the ability to make the alcohol and lactic acids required to brew a sour beer without using bacteria.

Bochman and Caputo now sell their yeast strains under the name Wild Pitch Yeast.

So There You Have It

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