Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Yeast of Burden

Steve B. and his dad are in the process of starting up Beau's All Natural Brewing Co. in Eastern Ontario. Here is another instalment in the ongoing saga of the start up, which like most new business ventures has not been without its challenges...

So our yeast died. On our very first order of yeast there was a mess-up at customs, and it sat in a remote border office in the heat; the tiny, piercing screams from their unicellular vocal cords falling on the deaf ears of some customs officer.
Meanwhile, back at the brewery our unitank – installed, tested, kosher propylene glycol coursing through its double-jacketed stainless steel veins – sat quiet, attentive. But it looked like it was waiting to receive a 30-hectolitre payload that wasn’t coming.
A quick call to the big yeast suppliers, White Labs and Wyeast, confirmed what we already suspected: that we were out of luck. You see, when you decide to brew a style of beer that no one else in your region brews (a Kölsch) your yeast is a "specialty," and that unfortunately means there is never an inventory around when you need it.
We were told it would take at least two weeks to propagate more of our yeast and then it would have to be shipped, risking the same fate as the first. Two weeks lag time was not an option for us with a July 1st launch date just around the corner, so something had to be done.
I was buoyed by one thought: could another brewery who brewed the same style lend us their yeast? Or I guess to put it more exactly, would someone lend us, another brewery, the competition, some of their yeast?
I had recently returned from the annual craft brewers conference in Seattle. At the keynote address, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing had spoken about "brethren of the fellow brewer." He claimed that if other industries were as tightly knit and supportive as the brewing business, Steve Jobs could just call up Bill Gates and borrow some W’s for his keyboards if he ran out. Well, I didn’t need W’s, but I figured I’d see if anyone had 80 cups of yeast to lend a neighbour.
I started with Mt. Begbie in Revelstoke, BC, the only other Kölsch brewers in Canada to my knowledge – and it's a pretty good one, too. I spoke with a nice woman, who sympathized with my plight and promised to check with her husband and head brewer. Later that night she called back to tell me they would love to help, but were just placing an order themselves and didn’t have any yeast on hand. At least it wasn't a no.
Disappointed but undaunted, I called Alaskan Brewing, in... well, Alaska, but no dice. Seems they’ve patented their yeast strain (how much corporate espionage did you think existed in Alaska?) and wouldn’t dream of letting their yeast outside their four walls. Fair enough.
I called another brewery and was informed by the woman on the phone that her husband, the head brewer, had died the day before – but that he would have helped me for sure.
I thought I had it all sewn up with Schlafly out of St. Louis – they had their own lab, were just propagating a Kölsch strain, and said would get a kick out of helping out a Canadian start-up. Unfortunately, when Matt, our head brewer, tried to work out logistics, they couldn’t figure out a way to keep the yeast cold, uncontaminated and stress-free on a journey from St. Louis to Ontario. Apparently, yeast is the prima donna of the single-celled organism world.
In all, I think I called about 25 U.S. breweries, most of which said they’d love to help out, but either didn’t have the yeast on hand (not many produce this style on a consistent basis) or couldn’t spare what they did. But the amazing thing was how interested everyone was in helping out someone who was technically "the competition." Sam Calagione had pegged this business right, and it was an awesome thing to behold.
In the end it was Wyeast that came to our rescue. Matt was able to work with them to get a suitable amount of yeast shipped to us. With sweating palms we called Wyeast and Fed Ex every 3o minutes for the next two-and-a-half days until it landed.
Close call? Yes. Great learning experience? Yes again. And the reward came a few days later, when nearly two years after starting work on our brewery, we finally started brewing our first batch of beer... still on track (barely) for July 1.

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