The operation consists of 25 bee hives located on five farms and one restaurant in Champaign Co. IL. All beekeeping is conducted according to biodynamic principles such as natural queen rearing, natural materials (wood, metal) and diverse farm environments that promote good nutrition. Any chemicals used conform to USAD organic guidelines.
Yeast is fundamental to brewing. Most commercial yeast strains are produced in laboratories and have standardized flavor profiles. Wild yeast, on the other hand, reflects the terroir of the local climate, crops and soil.
Small farm breweries using wild yeast occupy a growing niche in the local foods movement. However farmhouse breweries using wild yeast usually rely on open, accidental fermentation. This project is intended to take the guesswork out of open fermentation.
When honey bees gather nectar from flowering crops, they also gather yeast spores. Honey is therefore a natural medium for the collection of wild yeast strains. We plan to take samples of honey from hives located on two mature farms. Then, with the support of a microbiologist, we intend to demonstrate skills to control wild yeast selection under farmhouse conditions. Home brewers and small-batch commercial brewers will help test and select the most promising strains.
We feel that farmers and beekeepers are sitting on top of a commercial goldmine of wild yeast strains with diverse flavor profiles and attenuations. This natural resource is currently under-exploited and uncontrolled. Our goal is to increase the commercial viability of farmhouse fermentation by demonstrating how to control and replicate wild yeast.
- Evaluate the potential of wild yeast as a crop by identifying and testing wild yeast strains in particular terroirs (fruit farm: Curtis Orchard and brewery farm: Big Thorn)
- Encourage farmers and beekeepers to exploit the wild yeast possibilities of their particular landscape (terroir) and products (beverage, baking, cheese, pickling, etc.) by sharing findings through social media, educational presentations, conferences and written information
- Identify scientific methods that would be useful for propagating wild yeast under farmhouse conditions
- Evaluate the impact of seasonal fluctuations and geographical constraints (such as monofloral environments) on the flavor profiles of wild yeast
- Encourage the development of innovative market bridges and income streams between local agriculture and local brewing
Our wild yeast propagation approach is one that the average farm would be capable of replicating at low, up-front investment and on their own property. It is especially useful to farms that have already established or are in the planning phases of establishing a microbrewery, cidery or meadery.
The best locations for harvesting diverse wild yeast strains are landscapes filled with wild flowers and fruiting trees. We have selected two farms, Curtis Orchard and Big Thorn Farm, for our sources of wild yeast spores. We will partner with honey bees on both farms, using samples of honey for collecting wild yeast strains.
Under the guidance of Dr. Terese Barta, our microbiologist as of December 16, 2019, we will enrich and isolate pure yeast strains from the honey samples, and then propagate any promising strains in quantities necessary to brew at both the homebrew and commercial microbrewery scale.
We also plan to test yeast in bees’ mid-guts for yeast that might be suitable for brewing.
If we are unsuccessful in isolating a viable yeast for brewing in the immediate area, we plan to contact beekeepers in other parts of the country to request samples of raw honey for testing. The results of this research should help determine if honey in other regions might be more suitable for yeast isolation.
Following propagation, we will screen strains for commercial viability in small (~1liter) batch fermentations using with malt extract provided by a local brewery. This will indicate the extent to which the isolates convert available sugars and have suitable sensory profiles.
Next, homebrew scale quantities will be supplied to the local homebrew club, the BUZZ. Members will pitch the yeast in 5 gallon fermentations using a standard, neutral beer style (e.g. blond ale, traditional mead, cider) for comparative sensory and commercial evaluation.
At the end of the project, a field day will be held in which professional brewers and judges will evaluate and determine the commercial viability of the farm-captured yeast strains. It is hoped that the winning yeast strain(s) will be used in brewing by 25 O’Clock Brewery, Big Thorn Brewery or another local brewery.
Yeast strains will be cryo-genically preserved indefinitely for future propagation. Video and photographs will be taken at each step to give interested farmers an overview of what is involved, and material and time demands.
In the first year research we analyzed seasonal honey (spring and fall) samples, although surprisingly, we did not find yeast strains that might be suitable for brewing. This led us to speculate that perhaps the intensive farming methods of the Midwest might create an environment that reduced the survival opportunities for brewer’s yeast. We subsequently requested honey samples from beekeepers from other regions such as the Northeast (Maine) and the South (Florida, Georgia). Although we found some interesting yeast strains, none of the samples so far have been shown to contain brewable yeast strains.
In the second year of the grant, we plan to test honey on a monthly basis in case monthly fluctuations might play a role. In the second year, we also plan to test “green” honey, honey that is not yet completely dehydrated by the bees, in case the lower moisture content of mature honey might discourage yeast viability. Our consulting microbiologist, Dr. Barta, recently applied for an auxiliary grant from the University of Wisconsin to further test air and surface quality around the hives. Such analyses might help us understand better how environmental factors surrounding bee hives might affect the presence of brewer’s yeast in honey.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The SARE project was announced in the local newspaper, the News-Gazette, in the spring of 2019.
The project was announced to the local brew club, the BUZZ, in the fall of 2018 and announced again during the spring of 2019. The club’s president and some members expressed interest in participating in the brewing portion of the project. One beekeeper/brewer club member who is starting a commercial meadery expressed particular interest in brew-testing the experimental yeast.
A Facebook page called Yeast Garden was established to illustrate and inspire yeast experimentation.
I learned that while it seems reasonable to isolate strains of brewer’s yeast in honey, it requires persistence!
While we have not yet isolated a yeast strain suitable for brewing, we have noticed that the hives located in isolated and forested areas, such as the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia or the wilderness of Southern Illinois contained better yeast diversity.