Tahoe Brew: Beauty and the yeast | TahoeDailyTribune.com
Nathan Bergner
Tahoe Brew

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Tahoe Brew: Beauty and the yeast

The old adage tells us that ignorance is bliss, and I have to agree with that statement as I sit in my home pressing some plastic buttons on a kind of metal box that somehow sends and receives information from all over the world without any type of wire.

How it all works might as well be magic to me, and I'm fine with that. I just hope I'm not around for any kind of cruel post-apocalyptic world where I have to reinvent the telephone and can't find any tin cans and string. Most of the time, my ignorance doesn't bother me because nobody can know everything. Plus, I have to save space in my brain for much more important things like the song lyrics to "Ice Ice Baby" or how to get infinite lives on Mario.

Every now and then, though, one of life's mysteries piques my interest enough that I feel compelled to find out more. That brings me to this month's beer topic: yeast.

Yeast is a microorganism that exists just about everywhere naturally. It's in the air, on the food you eat, and even on your body. Ancient brewers had no idea that yeast was the magic that turned their normal beverages into something special. In fact, fermentation was thought of as a kind of divine intervention. In their book, "Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation," Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff tell readers that a typical fermentation in ancient Mesopotamia was "an offering set before a shrine and prayed over for several days."

Eventually enough yeast would fall into the beer and begin multiplying that the beer would begin bubbling and the brewer would know that the fermentation had begun. Further evidence of the ignorance of yeast can be found in the Bavarian beer purity laws of 1516. The law decreed that it was illegal to brew beer containing anything other than water, barley malt, and hops. No mention of yeast though.

Although many scientists began to study fermentation, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that Louis Pasteur established that yeast was a living microorganism (not just a chemical by-product of fermentation) and that it was actually responsible for the conversion of sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol. Once yeast was "discovered," brewers and scientists worked together and found out that there were different strains of yeast that acted differently. Eventually separate individual strains of yeast were isolated.

Today, there are several laboratories that specialize in the production and isolation of different yeasts for brewing. The two largest of these labs are Wyeast Laboratories in Hood River, Oregon, and White Labs in San Diego. They serve both professional brewers on a commercial scale as well as homebrewers only needing small amounts of yeast. A quick glance at Wyeast's website reveals that they currently offer 73 strains of yeasts for fermenting beer, but also offer yeast for cider, wine, saké and mead (a fermented honey beverage.) The 73 strains will all behave differently and contribute different flavors in addition to converting sugars into alcohol and CO2.

In order to get a local perspective on yeast, I sat down with South Lake Brewing's founder and head brewer, Chris Smith. We talked about a number of topics, but I discovered that one of the things that he is most passionate about is yeast. At South Lake, he'll mainly be using a strain of yeast referred to as "002" which is a strain typically associated with English ales. Here is the whole interview:

Nathan Bergner: So tell me why you think fermentation is so important for your beers.

Chris Smith: Yeah, I think it's something that really drives not only the character of your beer and flavor, but the health of your beer. If you don't take care of your yeast, if you don't have healthy fermentations, you're not going to be able to have that yeast around and have longevity, to be able to pitch it into other beers. You really are doing a detriment to the beer if you don't take care of it all the way up into fermentation if you're not making sure that your yeast is happy and healthy- because that's the majority of where you're going to get your flavors and you're also going to get the majority of your off flavors if you're not treating it well. You're not giving it enough oxygen prior to the start of fermentation, you're not keeping it at the right temperature, creating diacetyl or any other off flavors. You might not give your yeast enough time or might not have enough pitched yeast, or it might not be healthy enough to take care of these, basically, off flavors and other molecules that come up during fermentation that can be taken care of with healthy yeast and clean fermentation.

NB: How many re-pitches do you feel like you can do?

CS: It kind of depends on what kind of beers you're brewing, of course. If you're going to keep brewing the same blonde ale or pale ale every single time, you can probably get 9 to 12 generations of the same yeast. But also, when you're brewing a beer, when you do harvest your yeast, say you're doing a 10 bbl batch, you could probably get enough yeast off of that 10 bbl batch to do two other 10 bbl batches, so it can blossom. Say that was generation 1 of that yeast and you brewed your blonde ale, generation 2 can go into 2 different beers, and then you have two parallel generation 2's, so even though you're saying you might get 9 generations of that yeast, you're doing more than 9 beers out of that strain of yeast. If you kept it splitting, it's almost exponential, right? And that's saying you're taking perfect care of that yeast. A couple of those generation 2, when it gets to generation 3 or 4, you might be using that in a double IPA or something that was extremely alcoholic or really heavily dry hopped and you probably don't want to use that yeast again, so that branch of that generation is no longer viable for healthy yeast. You have to make sure that you're setting up your production schedule according to your healthy yeast generations.

NB: So it sounds like you're saying maybe up to nine generations if the yeast is healthy.

CS: Yeah, I mean we're going to try that. We're using an English Ale strain, which is a little bit different than a lot of breweries nowadays that are using the California Ale yeast that's a little drier, but a little less expressive. Something like 001 from White Labs is going to be really easy to play with and you can kind of treat it badly and it's going to almost work the same every single time and you've got a little leeway. The English Ale can be a little bit more finicky, but, as long as you take good care of it, I don't see any reason that we can't get 9 generations or more out of it.

NB: Can you tell us a different brewery that might use 002 to give an example of the type of flavors?

CS: Firestone Walker uses an English Ale [yeast strain] similar to 002. It's going to give it a little more estery, and by estery, I mean fruity flavors. They are usually pretty restrained with Firestone Walker. Having an English Ale yeast kind of lets us run the gamit of different types of ales that we really want to brew, and we can really give that traditional English character to an English Ale rather than trying to doctor it up and just using an American Ale yeast.

NB: And I guess to contrast, an example of an American Ale yeast brewed beer… Sierra Nevada?

CS: Yeah, I mean, that's the typical one that you hear about. You hear "Cal Ale" yeast, and that's from Sierra Nevada, really. And you're going to get that clean flavor from it. You know, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, that's the one. And then if you take something like Firestone Walker Double Barrel Ale, you're going to get some of that flavor that they partially ferment in oak barrels, but you're also going to get that little bit more flavorful yeast, and they use that in their pale ales and IPAs as well, and they can really play with what they are going to get out of that yeast and that fermentation process because they know it so well.

NB: Let's say you want to make a beer that is more estery, has more of those fruity flavors, how does one achieve that with your yeast?

CS: With 002, the easiest way is really to play with the temperature of your fermentation. It's always a fine line between fermenting too low and not getting the character you want and fermenting at too high of a temperature and maybe throwing off some off flavors, so once you find that little sweet spot that might be a little higher of a fermentation temperature than you'd do with California Ale yeast, so we're probably looking at the high sixties, to maybe walking it into seventy degrees or so through a few days of fermentation to really get some of the ester qualities that we want for an English Ale. And then if we want to have a more restrained flavor out of that same yeast, we can really keep the temperature in the mid sixties through fermentation and slowly rise it at the end just to make sure that the yeast cleans itself up of any diacetyl or any other potentially off flavored molecules. That can take a little bit longer time, but we can still do a dry American Ale with our English Ale yeast.

NB: So, it sounds like your basic fermentation procedure, depending on what beer you're making, would be to start off at a certain temperature for a certain number of days, then raise it up at the end to finish it off.

CS: Yeah, we are brewing a lot of American Ales: Blonde Ale, Pale Ale, IPA, American Brown Ale, with our English Ale yeast. It will give us a little bit more character and a little bit more mouthfeel and almost a sweeter characteristic if we were to use it as a normal California Ale yeast, so we're going to have to play with it. We're going to have to mess with everything from raw ingredients down the line through our mash schedule, mash temperatures, and fermentations, but we're going to be able to get whatever flavor we want with the English Ale yeast, it's just something that we've got to learn as we brew.

NB: How does a brewer control fermentation temperature?

CS: On a craft beer, microbrewery size, we've got glycol jacketed fermenters and brite tanks and this allows us to really dial in the temperature within half a degree. But if you're, say, homebrewing, you could get fancy and get a temperature controller and use an old fridge and set your temperature to that, or even if you have an empty tub, you could fill it with some water and set your carboy in there and ferment and you could intermittently throw in a frozen water bottle or two and keep checking your temperature. But really, the biggest thing about fermentation is keeping it consistent and not having ups and downs, especially in homebrewing. If you're brewing in the summer, you probably don't want to brew a normal pale ale if you don't have a way to keep that consistent fermentation temperature in the upper sixties. You might want to go with something like a Belgian Saison, where that yeast is used to higher temperatures and fluctuations.

NB: So you've mentioned saison, just now. Can you use an English Ale yeast to make a saison?

CS: (Laughs) You could try…

NB: Are you going to try?

CS: Uh, no. Our house [English Ale] yeast is going to drive all of our ales, but we will use other yeasts. We are planning to use a Belgian yeast [strain] for our saisons, and we are going to do a couple different saisons. We're going to start off with a riff on a saison that's a little lighter in alcohol than your typical Saison Dupont, but it's something that would be closer to what farmhands in Belgium would have had as their stipend for the day on the farm.

NB: Do you have a favorite saison yeast that you think you'll use mostly, or do you think you'll rotate through a few?

CS: We're still kind of open on that. We're going to start with a French Saison yeast. It's got a little bit more of a fruity character to it along with the spice and the earthiness that you can get. Some of my favorite from homebrewing are actually the ones that you get from the smaller, more boutique yeast companies. Yeast Bay has Wallonian Farmhouse yeast, and that's probably one of my favorites for homebrewing. It really gives it kind of this funky tartness, just from the yeast itself, closest to something that has Brett. No Brett at all, but it's probably the closest you can get to that type of fermentation. It still gives it a little bit of the weird tropical fruit and the layered earthiness and spiciness, but there's something a little bit different with that one that I really enjoy, and it's something that we'll look to adding into our lineup in the future.

NB: Have you found it hard to acquire any ingredients for your beers? You seem to know the flavor you want. Have you found it hard to find anything that is going to help you achieve that?

CS: When I first started getting into all grain brewing, I would basically go to the local homebrew store and ask for 2 row, or pilsner, or whatever certain type of malt they had, and some of them don't have all the different kinds. You might have just one supplier and all suppliers are a little bit different- they'll have different flavors, add different color contributions to your beer. And so, one thing that I started to get into towards the end of my homebrewing career is really just being mindful of what types of malts that the local homebrew stores carried and making sure I knew the flavors I was getting out of that. If I was trying to brew a certain type of beer that I maybe was brewing several times (that style of beer) and trying to dial in my recipe, then I'd know not just the types of malts that I'm using but the brand of malts and keeping that consistent, and maybe changing one or two of those if necessary or if possible from that local homebrew store. As you get into the craft side, there are so many suppliers of the same type of malt. You could probably find a dozen types of pale 2-row malt, and they're all going to have a little different flavor. So, it's something that we've got to be mindful that we're consistent on the malt side too, it's not just the fermentation and the hops we're adding. It's the amount of malt and even the brand of malt that we're getting, and that even changes from year to year- it's an agricultural product that is going to develop and change from harvest to harvest.

NB: You've said that you're going to focus on drinkable beers. What does that mean to you? What's drinkability?

CS: I think drinkability in essence is really that you can finish a beer and not know you finished it and be ready for the next one. I think that comes down to balance. And balance isn't just that all your beers are a certain mix of sweet and bitter and hoppy and flavorful, or lack of sweetness. It's really for each certain style that I don't want it to be harsh or any certain off flavors or anything off-putting. But basically if I'm brewing an IPA I want that to be something that isn't mouth-puckeringly bitter or so alcoholic that it's hard to finish. I want to make sure that within that style guide that it's balanced and that it feels like it's natural to drink and that everything about that beer was thought out and really dialed in and there's nothing that doesn't go with the beer or anything that conflicts with other flavors in the beer.

NB: Do you consider yourself more of a classic style brewer or an avant garde type brewer or somewhere in between?

CS: I think I'm definitely in between. Ever since I started homebrewing, I've always wanted to change up recipes and tweak them. And I've always come up with my recipes by myself after the first few batches, but I'll always look back toward the traditional style guides and those types of beers that really paved the way. Say if I'm brewing a pale ale, I'm going to look at what Sierra Nevada did to make that. But, I'm always going to give my own little tweak to it. I'm going to change up the fermentation profile a little bit. I'm always going to look at the malts a little bit differently. And there's so many new hops coming out that you can really play with and get a lot of different flavors out of. So I'm excited to do that and change up beers. We're going to have flagship beers. I'm not really calling them beers that stay on draft all the time, but more reoccurring than any of the other beers that we brew. These beers are going to be based on traditional styles and just tweaked slightly to suit my tastes and the tastes that are trending now. These beers might evolve over time, but I want consistency from one batch to the next, and those are going to be the ones that get that consistency, whereas the other ones are a little more experimental.

NB: I did want to ask you about hops. Because you guys will be the biggest brewer here in the South Tahoe area. I know hops tend to be one of those ingredients that are sometimes tough to get. Has that been true for you?

CS: Yes and no. We went into opening the brewery with no hop contracts or anything like that. The state of hops right now is that they are getting a little easier to find. People are realizing that they don't need as many of the hops that they contracted. Especially the bigger guys. The hyper local guys like us are kind of stealing the shares of the market from the bigger guys, and they are willing to get rid of some of that contract because they don't need it. Even the little guys might have over contracted certain hops. We're kind of picking up second hand right now until we're probably six months into opening and we can really dial in and figure out what hops we're going to need a lot of, and figure out what everyone's favorite beers are and what we'll brew a lot. So, we've been getting hops from Alibi in Incline. They've been gracious enough to share some of their contracted hops with us. Everyone in the industry right now is super helpful, so it seems like [hops] might be hard to get initially, and maybe hard to set up a contract for, but you can always track down those specialty hops and those killer new hops if you know who to talk to.

NB: Do you have a favorite hop?

CS: Favorite hop… um…

NB: I guess it depends on beer style.

CS: Yeah, that definitely matters. One that a lot of people haven't been using that has been around for a long time and is kind of making a comeback is Ahtanum. It's similar to Cascade, a little bit more orangey rather than grapefruit. That one's really fun. So that's like an older hop. It's from like the 80's. It kind of fell by the wayside with all these fancy Citra hops and Mosaic and all that, which, I also love, but… A newer one? I did an IPA recently with Lemon Drop mixed in with Mosaic and Citra. It kind of gave it a cool flavor. It wasn't like lemon pith at all. It was more like, a little bit lemonade-y flavor. So, that was pretty good.

NB: I've heard legends of hops growing around here. Have you heard any of these?

CS: I've heard of these legends.

NB: Have you investigated them?

CS: I haven't tracked them down yet. I know a couple people up here who have hops growing in their backyard, so I could definitely see them growing out in the wild. It would be interesting to try to brew a beer with them. I probably wouldn't try to anything more than five or ten gallons. I think it would be fun. The thing with any hop that you get, whether it's something that you grew or found, and especially with hops that you've found- you're not going to know the alpha acid percentage of it. You're not going to be able to hit your bitterness levels with it. So it's usually something that you'd throw in at the end of your whirlpool, or even if you wanted to dry hop with it. It might be a little scary with whatever could be living on it, but yeah, I think that could be really fun. And then it's always fun to try to figure out what kind of beer would complement that flavor that you get out of it. I would imagine that if it's something that has been growing out there for a really long time, it's not going to be anything like the current ones that people use. It's probably going to have a more herbal characteristic to it. Maybe a little bit a spiciness, but you're definitely not going to get the fruity qualities out of it.

NB: So, we've talked about yeast, we've talked about barley, we've talked about hops. Is there anything you want to say about water?

CS: Yeah.

NB: How is the water in Tahoe? If you just brewed a straight up, no [water] additions, beer, what type of beer do you think would be good for the Tahoe water?

CS: The water is amazing here. You know, if you get it out of a tap, even in Tahoe, it's been treated. You're going to have, depending on where you are in Tahoe, chlorine and chloramine molecules, which definitely are a detriment to your beer. You can get some off flavors from that. But, if I were to pick a style that would grow up in Tahoe if you just pulled it out of the lake or a stream here, it would probably be a lager. It's so soft here (the water). It really hasn't gotten to any other aquafers that have your traditional, like limestone or something like that, something that you're going to get any salts out of. It's like a giant granite bowl here, so it's pretty soft. It's really a blank slate, which I'm excited about.

NB: I know you're using an English Ale yeast and you've mentioned doing some English ales along with your American Ales. It seems like there are more minerals in those. Will you be doing some water additions?

CS: We'll definitely have additions in our beers. We have a giant carbon filter in-line before it goes into any of our brewing process. So we'll be able to strip out any chlorine that might be in there and anything else. But, yeah, I'm excited to have a blank slate. We do have some additions. Especially our IPA. We do have a little different water profile than say your Burton upon Trent English IPA. But we'll be able to basically hit any target we want. I'm really excited in the future, once we have enough tank space, to do a couple lagers. I'm going to use the soft water here and have the time to really give that lager the time it needs and really lagering it. The original out of the Tahoe region was out of Truckee and it was a lager.

NB: Can you give me like a one minute summary if someone asked you "how do you make beer"? In your facility from the grain to the keg, what happens?

CS: Our system is basically starting from your barley or your cereal grain and going all the way through to the keg. We get malted grain, and malted grain is basically somewhat germinated grain. It's got all the enzymes needed to turn that starch that you find in your grain into sugar. It's all basically encapsulated inside that grain husk. So, first it goes through a mill which literally just cracks open that husk and it allows us to get to that starch. Then it goes through our auger which is basically a way to transport it up into our mash tun. A mash tun basically a giant tank for steeping hot water with these enzymes. They get activated and turn the starch into sugar. Then we're basically making malt juice or sugary water. Then we put that in our kettle and boil it. That helps kill off any bacteria or any other yeast. It also helps with a few other things, but that's also where we add our hops and make it bitter, because we basically have sugar water. If we didn't have bitterness it would be really weird. It wouldn't be balanced. Then we cool it off and transfer it into our fermenters, pitch our yeast, and keep it at the right temperature to keep the yeast happy. That usually takes a week and a half to two weeks, and then we transfer it into our brite tank.

NB: What does the yeast do?

CS: Our yeast basically consumes all of that great malt juice sugar and it makes carbon dioxide and it makes alcohol along with all of our little bits of flavor, because if you literally just had a little bit of sugar CO2 and alcohol, it would not taste like beer. So there's other pieces that [the yeast] makes, but it really thrives and metabolizes that sugar and allows us to make the beer. And then we transfer it, when it's ready, over to our brite tank. Off of there we carbonate it, then keg it, then it's ready to serve.

NB: Do you have a favorite brewer or brewery that you really admire for what they do, what they are doing, or what they did?

CS: Yeah… I always go back to Firestone Walker. I'm just always impressed by their beer and they are coming out with new beers all the time now, but you always know it's a Firestone. The way that they treat the whole process, they are really killing it as far as making their beer and their attention to quality. There's all kinds of newer breweries that I'm excited for. I??ve got friends in the industry and they are my favorite brewers right now because they are the unsung heroes if I ever have a question they'll answer me within a couple minutes. I wouldn't be here where I'm at without my brewer friends and their willingness to share their knowledge and make sure we succeed.

NB: What are you most excited about for South Lake Brewing?

CS: Other than the actual brewing of beer and even beyond serving our beer across the bartop to our patrons and being excited about that, I grew up in Tahoe. I know what it's like as a kid to an adult living in Tahoe and there's really a renaissance that's happening in Tahoe. It's becoming an adventure mecca, bringing a little bit more of a stable economy to Tahoe, and I'm excited to be a part of that. It's something that my wife, Nicole, and I have always dreamed about, coming back to Tahoe and being part of the community and starting a business that can be a positive influence in the community. I'm really excited to partner with TAMBA and raise money to build trails. Help them out in any way we can, and I think that's going to be a great partnership. Mountain bikers love drinking beer, so I'm pretty excited about that.

NB: Yeah, they'll be coming down here after laps on Tahoe Mountain.

CS: Yeah, exactly, I mean they are building new trails right in our backyard too. Angora and everything, all the connectors. So, yeah I really want to brewery to be a community hub. And not just for beer, but for hanging out with your best friends, meeting new people, sharing your adventures with each other, and coming back here and just making Tahoe a greater place. That's one of the biggest excitements for me.

NB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

CS: Shout outs to definitely our family and friends. How welcoming the community has been so far. You know, I'd still be trying to build and frame walls right now if it weren't for people I knew and the network I've created and the people that I know that have stepped up to help. We wouldn't be half as far as we are now. Thanks to everyone in the community who is really excited for us and has encouraged us with it and helped make our dreams happen. It's a business model that has been done all over the country and has even been done in Tahoe in the past, but I think that it's the right time for it. Being a microbrewery that can be called South Shore's beer and not be a restaurant and really be able to collaborate with restaurants and bars and even other breweries. I'd like to do some collab brews with people who have started breweries here before me and know the area and know the brew scene.