The Science Within the Craft : Yeast in RVA

By: Malachy McKenna & Dr. Jason Ridlon

-taken from Summer 2014 --Issue #3-

There has been a strong movement in the RVA to “buy fresh, buy local”, and with good reason. Local products don’t require extensive shipping, which both inflates, prices and increases our environmental footprint. They also do not sit in warehouses or on shelves for extended periods of time—losing nutrients or viability. With a burgeoning Virginia Craft Brew market exploding, with no end in sight, we—two local scientists— have answered the call for fresh, local yeast. “Our passion for homebrewing led us to talk to professional brewers in Virginia and throughout the Eastern United States. We began to see a great need for a local yeast producer,” explains Malachy McKenna, biologist and co-owner of RVA Yeast Labs LLC. McKenna has teamed up with Dr. Jason Ridlon, a research microbiologist who also teaches fermentation and microbiology to undergraduate and graduate students. “Microbiology and brewing go hand-in-hand. Very soon after we started brewing, I began stocking yeast strains from commercial vendors, capturing yeast from bottles, and we soon began isolating yeast from Virginia fruit orchards. We started winning medals in homebrewing competitions with our native ‘Virginia yeast’,” says Dr. Ridlon.

The spirit of the craft brew movement boasts innovation and experimentation. The diversity of malt, hops, fruits, spices and other adjuncts ensures a vast range of experiences. Add the diversity of yeast to this mix and the sky’s nowhere near the limit. It has been said that, “brewers make wort, yeast make beer”. This is in no way to diminish the role of the brewer, who guides the craft – carefully arranging the elements to please the yeast such that the brew produced pleases the palate.

All things being equal, the strain of yeast chosen will greatly affect flavor and aroma profiles. We encourage brewers to do an experiment: split a batch of wort and pitch two very different strains of yeast – then taste the results in the company of good friends. Or, split a batch using the same strain and ferment at two different temperatures. For instance, RVA 302 will make a nice malty bock beer at 55°F, but raise the temperature to 65°F and you now have a California Common. When making wheat beers, altering both pitch rate and temperature can result in very different Hefeweizens. Yeast are single-celled microorganisms abundant in nature. Some strains of Saccharomyces, or “sugar fungi” have been domesticated by brewers, vineculturalists and bread-makers. Another group of wild yeast, the Brettanomyces, are different beasties altogether— producing flavors and aromas ranging from pear and pineapple to what has been referred to as “mousey”, “horseblanket”, and “barnyard”. These two latter groups of microbes are considered welcome guests by brewers or trespassers. The use of bacteria, most notably of the genera Lactobacillus and Pediococcus can also create some amazing sour flavors. RVA Yeast Labs offers a wide range of all of the aforementioned microbes to accomplish the flavor profiles desired by beer brewers, wine makers, cider and mead makers.

The brewing traditions of Belgium have greatly influenced the American craft brew scene. This includes the use of native yeast. RVA 804, our “Orchard Brett,” is the first native strain to hit our product list. Captured from a Virginia fruit orchard, it makes an excellent tart cider and adds complexity to Belgian beers. We have isolated yeast from the farm at Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery (LCCB) and used it to brew some Belgian style beers with great results. We hope to enable the brewery to produce an all LCCB beer as they have been growing hops, grain and other items on their beautiful property in Goochland.

We are now in the habit of carrying sterile tubes wherever we go as one never knows when a location will inspire a native capture. Recently, Jason did a native capture from Dunnottar Castle, while at a microbiology conference in Scotland, and we are currently characterizing yeast isolated from this locale. In recent weeks we have had the pleasure of working with David Goode of Piedmont Hops, LLC and Swift Creek Berry Farm. It’s always wonderful to interact with people passionate about what they do. David showed us around the farm where he grew up, the same farm that is now growing hops for the local beer scene, thanks to his vision. We sampled from the plump blueberries, hop leaves, and oak trees on his farm hoping to have captured a unique yeast strain.

One of our customers and good friends, local mead pioneer Bill Cavender, has helped push our interests into wine yeast suitable for fermenting mead, the oldest alcoholic beverage. Mead is sugar-rich yet lacking in other nutrients. Our fresh liquid yeast has shown to be extremely favorable for mead and wine fermentations. We will soon be adding several wine strains to our offerings thanks to our work with Bill, who is preparing to open Black Heath Meadery in Richmond this fall. Further exploring honey, we have been working with Valerie West, Vice President of the Richmond Beekeepers Association, in two ways – first as a source of amazing local honey for which to aid us in learning the art of mead making, and second, as a potential source of yeast, as we are in the early stages of testing yeast we isolated from her bee hives.

Breweries currently experimenting with our strains include Triple Crossings Brewing Company, The Answer Brew Pub (both in Richmond), Roanoke’s Big Lick Brewing Company and Late Start Brewery in Tampa, Florida. Although available to order via rvayeastlabs.com, look for our products at Original Gravity in Richmond where Tony is excited to offer some of the yeasts that are harder to acquire commercially, such as RVA 103 Pacman Ale and RVA104 Headytopper Ale.

In sum, RVA Yeast Labs is a local yeast propagation company dedicated to working and growing with the local craft movement. We provide the freshest yeast for optimal fermentation and will work to ensure that the growing ranks of craft-fermented beverage artisans have an ever-expanding range of tools for which to create their art.

For more information, ordering instructions, and where to find our products go to rvayeastlabs.com. Check us out on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.