Brewing a Truly Local Beer — Wrangling Local Yeast

With the talk of shifting hop regions and the continued rise of local maltsters, let us not forget yeast. The miraculous microbe lives all around us but unless we’re talking about coolship ales, there is not much of a focus on brewing with local yeasts.

Several years ago Bootleg Biology in Nashville, TN launched its Local Yeast Project and touted itself as the “first organization to pioneer the collection and cultivation of official local yeast strains for every U.S. postal code and country across the globe, beginning with the original S. Arlingtonesis™.”

Finding and isolating and then using a local yeast strain – one in immediate proximity to a brewery – adds an unrivaled dimension to a beer. Beer Edge Editor John Holl spoke with Jeff Mello the Chief Yeast Wrangler of Bootleg Biology about the project and its benefits.

John Holl: How is the local yeast project going?

Jeff Mello: It’s an ongoing labor of love. With people’s brewing interests evolving and not every single brewery not trying to make wild beers anymore interest has shifted to other things. But, still there is demand for people who want to make truly local beers.

John Holl: What are some successful examples you’ve seen of brewers using the yeast?

Jeff Mello: There are a lot of brewers here in Tennessee that are using Tennessee grains, and there’s even a tiny hop production so if people want all local this is the final piece for that. Brandon Jones of Embrace the Funk and Yazoo has been doing his LocALE with S. Arlingtonesis. He took the idea of making a local beer and then making it low calorie and it seems to be working out quite well for them.

John Holl: I’ve had it and it’s quite good.

Jeff Mello: Using local yeasts means that brewers can build specific or new styles around local strains. With that in mind we’ve been working with Riverbend Malt to work out a Southern-style lager. This means not only using local yeasts but a grist that uses malt and corn. We’ve been reaching out to breweries about this.

There’s a brewery in Decatur, Georgia, Sceptre Brewing Arts that is making a Southern Lager, and I just love the idea of it.

We’ve come up with recipe concepts, lager yeasts and to build styles around the yeasts is a better way of highlighting the ingredients. Rather than just saying it is a novelty, it’s actually a component of something bigger. Local is important. A locally made product is a sum of all its parts.

It’s not just a cooker cutter style.

John Holl: What have the yeasts you have wrangled from various zip codes revealed? Does it make sense for breweries to try to capture local yeasts, even if they don’t plan to use them, just to have them?

Jeff Mello: Over time we realized that a lot of these strains are in the phenolic realm, and that makes it somewhat harder for some brewers who have to sell a lot of IPA. They can’t make a wild IPA all the time. They range from spicy Belgian saison to German hefewizen profiles. I think a lot of people thought there would be a lot of Brettanomyces cultures, but really there is a lot of saccharomyces cerevisiae in the air.

Part of the allure should be to have this unique item available not just something off the shelf. If a brewer is trying to build a recipe around flavor, my goal is to offer a culture that is specific to them.

To get started on your journey, Mello suggests checking out the DIYeast section on Bootleg Biology or pick up a Backyard Yeast Wrangling Tool Kit.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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