Between March and September 2020, the universe dealt Salt Lake City a trio of blows that read like biblical plagues. First, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic closed Utah’s bars, restaurants, and many other businesses. Then, just a week later, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake literally rocked Salt Lake City. In early September, a storm struck the area, producing hurricane-force winds nearing 100 miles per hour and causing one fatality.
“It was like the apocalypse,” says Trent Fargher, who cofounded Shades Brewing with his wife, Alexandra Ortiz, in South Salt Lake, Utah.
A less resilient brewery might not have weathered such a menacing trifecta, but for Shades, these events turned out to be catalysts that got the brewery firing on all cylinders. With bars, restaurants, and taprooms shut down in April 2020, the brewery began an all-out sprint to make as many new beers as possible to keep customers coming back for repeat to-go orders. Shades released a new beer every week, with as many as 300 customers lining up to purchase the 70 available cases. (The name? Earthquake Series, of course.) Led by Shades’ head brewer at the time, Marcio Buffolo, the team seemingly couldn’t stop coming up with new—and more in-demand—beers.
“Once the Earthquake Series became popular, Marcio said, ‘Why don’t we start releasing a new beer every week?’” Fargher says. “It got out of hand from there.”
After the Earthquake Series, the brewery began assembling “quarantine kits”—a sampler pack of 24 beers each. Then, in September 2020, Shades released 10 new beers in 10 weeks for its 10th anniversary. The breakneck pace paid off: The brewery became known locally (and in the seven states where it distributes) as innovative and boundary-pushing. Its biggest hit: kveik-fermented sour beers in flavors as diverse as Thai Tom Kha, Peach Cobbler, and Piña Colada. Earlier this year, all three of those beers won medals at the World Beer Cup.
“It’s good beer, and you can see that in the critical success they’ve achieved with this kveik series,” says Tim Haran, founder of Utah Beer News. “Marcio knows what he’s doing, especially when it comes to the science behind yeast. That’s served them well when they’re experimenting with different strains. It’s always fun to see what they’ll come up with next.”
To understand what drives this success—and what might come next from Shades—there’s one room of the brewery to focus on: the lab.
Shades’ South Salt Lake brewery and taproom are housed in a former meat-packing facility, whose labyrinthine hallways and walled-off rooms make it a quirky spot to navigate. Shades also has a new downtown Salt Lake City taproom that opened in June, but the brewery’s real magic and mojo have their origins in the lab at the South Salt Lake location. That’s where Shades’ MVP—its proprietary “kveik” culture—lives.
The culture traces its parentage back to a yeast sample that author and farmhouse beer researcher Lars Marius Garshol had obtained in Lithuania. That culture would later be called Simonaitis, after the brewer who shared it with Garshol. Technically, that yeast is not considered a kveik because it’s from Lithuania rather than Scandinavia—yet it is a “landrace” culture that shares many properties with kveik. Buffolo and team continue to call it that, and it drives Shades’ Kveik series of beers.
Buffolo says he received a sample of this yeast around 2018 from a homebrewer who wanted to use it for IPAs but was frustrated by its slight souring effect. Buffolo made his friend a deal: He would isolate the individual Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains within the larger culture, remove any souring Lactobacillus bacteria, and return to him the resulting yeast—as long as Buffolo was also allowed to use it at Shades. The friend agreed, and Buffolo’s DIY farmhouse yeast research began.
Two years earlier, the brewery had hired Buffolo part-time to help with quality control. With a master’s degree in cell biology and research connections at the University of Utah, he began building a more sophisticated lab at Shades, buying used equipment that came up for auction after the university was finished with it. Eventually, he’d assembled two hoods with stir plates, incubators, an autoclave, and a PCR machine (essentially, a photocopier for DNA). As promised, he isolated the five Sacch strains that made up the original culture, removed the Lacto, and tinkered with the ratios of remaining strains to create a final, proprietary house culture for Shades.
“That [introduced] a new era at the brewery,” Buffolo says.
Buffolo left Shades in mid-July to work at Mountain West Cider, with plans to one day open his own brewery. However, his contributions to Shades live on in the unique fermentation fingerprint he created for it.
The Shades team found plenty to like in its proprietary culture. Like kveik, it doesn’t require much in the way of temperature control. Also like kveik, it ferments quickly—finishing beers that used to take a week in just two to three days. The house culture also throws tons of citrus and passion-fruit esters, which play well with a variety of hops as well as fruit. If Shades needed proof that this new yeast was as great as the brewing team thought it was, that came with a Great American Beer Festival gold medal in 2018 for Kveik 1, a golden sour ale dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin.
“Without that [yeast], we probably wouldn’t be in the same place we are today,” Fargher says.
Shades uses its proprietary strain to ferment its popular Kveik series of beers, which derive their tartness not from the yeast but from a kettle-souring process. It’s also used in the brewery’s hard seltzers, a boon to fermentation under the nutrient-poor conditions that seltzer presents for yeast. Without proteins or lipids, hard-seltzer wash can be especially taxing to yeast, but Shades found its house strain suffered less than other strains because it can ferment at a higher temperature.
“We pitch yeast that’s already been stressed in the kettle-sour environment and is acclimated to a low pH, so when it enters the hard seltzer, it ends up fermenting a little faster and way more estery,” Buffolo says.
However, it’s the Kveik series that people have come to associate with the brewery. Beers such as Thai Tom Kha Sour Ale (brewed with coconut, makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal) and Watermelon Sour Patch (brewed with watermelon and sour candies) have shaken up stereotypes of Utah’s boring—or nonexistent—beer scene.
“We developed a few sours that were completely different from what people expect,” Buffolo says. “We delivered those flavors, and that’s where the snowball effect started for Shades.”
DIY Kveik and Farmhouse Cultures
Homebrewers have been at the forefront of working with and describing the 75 or 80 isolated kveik cultures now known to commercial brewers, but Buffolo says there’s much left to learn.
For homebrewers interested in working with such yeasts, he recommends brewing a batch of five-gallon wort, then dividing it among five one-gallon jars. Choose five different kveik (or other yeast) cultures—one for each jar—add a tablespoon of yeast to each, then leave them to sit in a basement or closet. (“Be careful, they’re super aggressive and might make a mess,” Buffolo says.)
Once you select one with the desired aroma and flavors, harvest the yeast cake and store it in the refrigerator in a mason jar. For every five-gallon batch in the future, pitch one tablespoon of yeast.
“Always under pitch your kveik because if you over pitch and ferment at a lower temperature, you’ll have a very neutral strain,” he says. “You might ferment fully in a few hours, and it won’t be super estery. So it’s like a saison idea: Under pitch and ferment hot.”