Imagine enjoying a strawberry for the first time in your life if up to that point your only flavor experiences consisted of broccoli and kale.”
These thought-provoking words from Dr. Anne Madden, postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and chief strategist at Lachancea, LLC, suggest that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of potential yeasts available for brewing and the myriad of flavors that can be produced from them.
Brewers are innovative by nature and are always seeking new ways to make their beers unique. The folks in the research department at NCSU are taking this challenge to a whole new level. They discovered beer can be brewed with yeast isolated from the bellies of insects — yeasts that create interesting, exotic yet repeatable, flavor profiles. The researchers have extracted and isolated usable brewing yeast from paper wasps, hornets, and bumblebees. Amazingly, the researchers have been able to produce sour and non-sour beers alike from the same yeast strain! Though they would not divulge specific details on how this is possible, calling it a patent-pending trade secret, the yeast’s claim to fame is that the brewer can control the amount of sourness produced by the yeast. And equally impressively, a sour beer can be fully fermented in three weeks flat compared with a Belgian lambic, that usually takes years.
The idea arose with the knowledge that certain insects are drawn to sweet sources such as nectar and fruit, and typical brewing yeasts enjoy sweet wort. So it seemed feasible that the yeast within these insects could potentially also be attracted to the sweetness in wort. It was a hypothesis worth checking out. After the yeast and other microflora were extracted from the insect’s belly, the yeast was isolated and grown up on a Petri dish. Once there was enough yeast to brew with, it was turned over to John Sheppard, Professor of Brewing Sciences at NCSU.
John brewed a batch of beer using yeast harvested from the belly of a bumblebee, which not only properly fermented the beer, but produced a rich mouthfeel and strong honey-like aromatics. Encouraged, he brewed a different beer, this time with yeast taken from a paper wasp, which resulted in a wonderfully tart sour ale.
Sheppard says the yeast has a high alcohol tolerance and prefers a warmer fermentation, around 75 °F (24 °C).
So far, it works best in malt-forward beers, he said. The big advantage of using this yeast is the short time it takes to brew a repeatable sour and the potential tank space it can free up. Even more amazing is that the brewer can control the sourness produced and change the acidity.
Due to the groundbreaking nature of the discovery, what started out as simple research has turned into a company, Lachancea, LLC. The name Lachancea refers to the unique yeast species at the heart of the company.
The first question on every homebrewer’s mind is where, when, and how can they get the yeast. Unfortunately, Sheppard says that is still some time away. Licensing agreements are in place with a few professional breweries for now, and after a patent is in place expansion may be the next step.
Madden notes amateurs should not try to harvest the yeast themselves as insects often carry multiple organisms within their bodies, some of which are pathogens.
Learn more about the innovations around this truly “wild” yeast at www.lachancea.com.