Monday, November 9, 2015

Profile Series : Growing Local Beer : Imperial Organic Yeast

Guest post by Joe Morris

There is an age-old cliché that “brewers make wort but it’s the yeast that makes beer." Owen Lingley, co-founder of Imperial Organic Yeast, jokingly mentioned to me that his outfit "makes one beer...and it is terrible." However, the yeast they make is phenomenal and that terrible beer is just a byproduct.

For stop two in the Growing Local Beer series, I visited the upstart Imperial Organic Yeast's impressive facility just off I-84 near Gresham to look in on their process as they propagate, maintain and package over 25 strains of yeast for retail and commercial sale.

Gallons upon gallons of G-02 "Kaiser" (A German Alt Strain) bubble away in this conical fermenter

Imperial Organic Yeast may only have been on the market since March 2015, but both Lingley and his partner Jason Stepper cut their teeth with another well-established yeast lab.  After leaving for greener pastures, Lingley turned his attention to canning craft brews and founded Craft Canning + Bottling in 2012.  His passion for providing a superior package for beer met his passion for homebrewing when he began canning his homebrew yeast for personal use. The seed was planted and from it, the next venture was born in Imperial Organic Yeast.

Cracking the yeast market is no small task. There are a few well-established outfits in the craft world and they are all essentially providing the same yeast strains; strains which have been in use for generations-upon-generations. In order to find a niche, Imperial makes a point of providing a higher pitch count than their competitors.

To explain the importance of pitch rate, it is necessary get a little technical here. The "pitch" is the yeast added to the wort (a sweet, unfermented malt solution) once it has been brewed and cooled. The wort is not "beer" until the yeast has fermented it. The pitch rate varies in relation to the volume and the gravity (sugar concentration and thus potential for alcohol) of the batch. Bigger beers, both in terms of volume and gravity, require more yeast.  Pitching too little yeast can have seriously detrimental results. The risk of off-flavors, contamination, incomplete fermentation and even bacterial infection are all greatly increased by a poor pitch rate. Imperial takes great pride in selling a greater pitch rate than competitors. Within reason, a better pitch rate translates to better beer.

Imperial is meticulous about sanitation and quality control.
Here, a steam jacketed kettle is flushed with caustic solution.
Each kettle and fermenter is cleaned and tested for contamination beyond any reasonable degree.
One other advantage for using higher pitch rate is time. Time is crucial to a commercial brewery. Breweries, who repitch their strains for a time, often need to build up their initial yeast culture by brewing a smaller beer or taking longer coaxing a beer along. Over the course of a year, that can add up to represent an entire batch of beer to a brewery. That's crucial to the bottom line.

Homebrewers love a proper pitch rate too. Lacking a lot of the resources of a pro brewery, home brewers often buy fresh yeast for each batch. It's not uncommon for a homebrewer to go their entire homebrewing career without ever pitching the proper amount of yeast into their beer. Intermediate-to-advanced homebrewers, those who are capable of making yeast starters or repitching yeast slurry in a sanitary manner have an advantage in managing pitch rate. But these techniques require additional time, equipment and attention.  

Special Sneak Preview: Spoiler alert, we used this yeast to make beer.

The number of active cells in a homebrew scale can of Imperial Organic Yeast is 200 billion cells. That’s roughly 2-3x the count sold by competitors. This pitch rate (In a 5 gallon batch: about 10.5 million cells per milliliter) is the same rate Imperial Organic Yeast sells to its commercial accounts. The results on this scale can be astronomical.

Let’s not forget about the “Organic” in Imperial Organic Yeast  It would seem that all yeast is organic. After all, it's a single cell organism that simply consumes sugar while producing CO2 and alcohol. However it is not so simple in the eyes of the agencies in charge of identifying organic products. In order for a yeast culture to be considered "organic," it must be propagated and maintained using organic media. In other words, it must fed nothing but an organic diet for several generations while meeting several other criteria within the lab's handling procedures.  

In the past, most breweries sought a waiver to allow their standard laboratory cultures to be permitted in organic beer. Sourcing yeast from Imperial, who is now Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth, eliminates the need for a waiver. 

There is a lot of overhead involved maintaining the organic status for Imperial, but it is vital to several key clients and their consumers. Notable in this market are local favorites Laurelwood and Hopworks Urban Brewery*. Most importantly, it is dear to the heart of the consumer who is committed to drinking an organic product.

This will look familiar to our homebrewing readership.
Freshly harvested yeast is stored in polysulfone carboys for future use.
With 75 craft breweries across the US currently on the roster and more on the way, Imperial is kicking the launch to into the homebrew market into full gear. Local shops have been adding the product line at a rate of about one per week and some major online homebrew suppliers have joined the list.

All in all, it seems that Imperial Organic Yeast is making a substantial dent in the craft and homebrew yeast market all while helping brewers make great beer.

*Editor's Note: A previous version stated that Hopworks Urban Brewery has an ownership stake. Imperial Organic Yeast has reached out to clarify that one investor in the company is a former employee of Hopworks Urban Brewery.