The typical beer drinker doesn’t particularly think about the yeast used in the fermentation process when swilling down the contents of a 40-ounce bottle of Pabst.
In fact, a good many beer drinkers probably don’t even know that yeast is part of the beer-making process.
Those beer drinkers would likely not have their fridge stocked with Mystic Brewery’s Gold-medal winning ‘Vineland 2’ brew – made carefully by owner Bryan Greenhagen and his brewers using their own, painstakingly cultivated strains of yeast.
It’s a process that dips way back in time when brewers and tavern owners used only what they had on hand, and made much of what they needed on the premises. Such is Mystic Brewery.
The four-year-old brewery has attracted quite a following among serious beer connoisseurs – a growing group of consumers that are blossoming as the craft-beer movement spreads – and many of those beer drinkers are blown away by the process that goes down within the walls of the Williams Street brewhouse.
One thing Mystic does that virtually no one else does is cultivate their own yeast for the brewing process – oftentimes finding that yeast from fruits that are growing in the wild. The fact that they’re doing that has recently garnered attention from Sturbridge author Jonathan Cook – who devoted a whole chapter to Mystic’s search for “indigenous yeasts” in his new book ‘Beer Terrain.’
“This is absolutely unique,” he said at a book signing inside the tasting room at the brewery last Friday. “There’s nobody else that cultivates indigenous yeast in New England that I’ve come across. One reason is that it’s incredibly time intensive, but it yields beers that are much more creative and the way beer was in the pre-modern and pre-industrial periods.”
Yeast is a common microorganism that is used in many cooking processes, including the making of bread and some cakes. Yeast basically eats sugar, and in the brewing process it is typically added to barley malt to induce the process of fermentation. As it eats its way through the malt, the yeast creates alcohol – leading to the malted beverage that so many love.
Since the industrial revolution – and increasingly in the 1970s and 1980s – breweries used one standard yeast. It was a product developed in a laboratory that was basically a workhorse meant to do one thing – create a lot of alcohol in a beer that had little variation and typically always came out the same.
“The mission of yeast for a long time was to, one, maintain the character from the yeast and, two, use it to make alcohol,” said Greenhagen. “For 300 years it was used to help give beer character and variability and make it more aromatic.”
Added Cook, “By the time you got to the 1970s, you had quite clean strains that were really just workers. They tended to not add anything to the brew. They just converted the alcohol. You really had beer at it’s most basic state – water, alcohol, and some beer characteristics added in there.”
Yeast, however, can be found in many places in nature – including the grey “growths” that often appear on rotting fruit. While most people see such fruit as trash, Greenhagen sees it as potentially the next great beer.
Greenhagen said the brewery came to be when he was at a Farmer’s Market and was looking at a plum that had begun to grow yeast on its skin. He began to wonder if such yeasts could be used in the brewing process. From there, Mystic was born and the mission of the brewery has always been to bring this form of agriculture back to the process – while at the same time making some fantastic brews.
“That was the question for us from the beginning – what are we contributing here?” he said. “If we wanted long-term success, we wanted to contribute something unique to the industry. It was stressed from the very beginning.”
Since those beginnings, the brewery has already had some outstanding, award-winning beers. Included in that is Vineland Two. That brew is made using an indigenous yeast that originated from rotting wild blueberries at a farm in Maine. To grow the right strain from those blueberries was quite a bit of work.
“We do 100s of brews to test and find the right strains,” Greenhagen said. “Some we just smell and say, ‘No, not that one.’ In those hundreds of tests, a lot of them will be okay and will taste about the same, but some are clearly outstanding. After Vineland Two’s success, now it’s turned into all-out yeast hunting.”
Now, they’re working on Vineland Three, which will feature yeast strains from wild grapes, raspberries and blueberries. Greenhagen said fruits in the wild have tended to yield better results.
“Our results seem to be better the more we go out into the wild and find stuff,” he said. “Things get treated and chemically treated in the fruits you find in the supermarket. Things in the wild tend to have much better results.”
The insistence on home-grown yeast – and the stress of it being an agricultural pursuit – has helped the business tap into the consumer markets that favor organic foods and local farms and farmer’s markets.
“We’re all encouraged by the farm to table thing and the organic farmers that are working it,” Greenhagen said. “That interest in food to table seems to be creeping into beer and it seems to be favoring our product. People are looking more for a product that has variability, history, tradition and a new level of creativity. They want to go back to the beer basics. We’ve always been that – a pre-modern, pre-industrialized brewery.”
Added Cook, “It’s just like people are now tired of refined sugar and are looking for something more basic. It’s the same way with beer. This beer at Mystic is what beer used to be. Many consumers now are interested in that.”
‘Beer Terrain’ – a look at the agriculture behind New England beer brewing – is available at many local bookstores and on Amazon.com.
Mystic can be found in most liquor stores, and it can also be purchased at the 174 Williams St. brewhouse. The retail shop and tasting room are open Weds., Thursday and Friday from 3-7 p.m. It is open Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.