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Yeast Wrangling for Homebrewers

Wild ales are becoming more popular and now homebrewers can join the fun.

Heather Vandenengel March 31, 2015

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Mystic Brewery has made a farmhouse ale fermented with native yeast from a Maine lowbush blueberry, Jester King brews an oaked farmhouse mild with native yeast captured from Texas Hill Country—and homebrewers can take a turn at wrangling their own backyard yeast with help from Bootleg Biology’s Backyard Yeast Wrangling Tool Kit.

The Yeast Wrangling Tool Kit includes everything a homebrewer needs to capture, culture, and isolate wild yeast. The kit has a two-part function, according to Bootleg Biology Founder and Chief Yeast Wrangler Jeff Mello. First, it makes yeast wrangling as simple as possible by putting everything you need into one jar and proving that you don’t need a professional lab to isolate and culture yeast.

“That’s what I want to do with Bootleg Biology—teach people how to do basic lab techniques, remove the mystique of wrangling yeast, and show anyone that if you can brew beer, you can definitely wrangle yeast and you can have your own backyard yeast strain,” Mello told me in a phone interview.

The second function falls into Bootleg’s greater mission: to establish an open source yeast project and the most diverse library of microbes for alcoholic and fermented beverages in the world.

Mello hopes to accomplish this by also making it as simple as possible. Every kit includes a prepaid envelope so once a yeast wrangler has successfully captured and cultivated a wild yeast or bug, he or she can send a sample of it to Mello, who will add it to the bank. Then, the homebrewer can select a different yeast strain from the bank with which to brew a beer.

Mello himself is not a trained microbiologist or a professional brewer—he was a homebrewer obsessed with yeast who wanted to learn as much as he could about it. His research began with the book Yeast by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff and spiraled after he did a backyard lambic experiment inspired by The Mad Fermentationist, Michael Tonsmeire. He learned basic lab techniques and successfully isolated his first backyard yeast strain, named S. Arlingtonesis, cultured from the air in his then-backyard garden in Arlington, Virginia.

Now he takes tools to capture yeast with him wherever he goes—such as on his wedding trip in Colorado Springs, where he collected fruit in vials. He has also successfully isolated yeast and bugs from honey and other fermented foods and beverages, including kimchi and a wild fermented ginger beer.

As part of the Local Yeast Project, Mello wants to collect a yeast strain from every zip code in the country. He says he draws inspiration from fermentation gurus such as Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation _and The Art of Fermentation, _with the idea of creating a “positive cultural legacy” through fermentation and native yeast or bugs that can be tied to the air, the fruit, the honey from a certain area, akin to the terroir associated with wine.

“The collective effect of having local ingredients, including local yeast, truly creates a local profile of that product,” says Mello. “I think it can help change people’s opinions of what food is and what food can be.”

Have you brewed this recipe? What did you think?