Yeast entrepreneurs bring taste of Guelph to brewing: Andrew Coppolino
'There is a lot of interest in using regional yeasts to make regional beer that has a unique flavour profile'
The French food term "terroir" we likely know from wine. It's that idiosyncratic quality that refers to "region" and the specific geographic elements that can affect flavour. There are a variety of conditions – from soil to climate to general geography – that give wine its unique taste.
If Guelph yeast entrepreneurs Angus Ross and Richard Preiss have anything to say about it, beer will have southwestern Ontario terroir too.
Yeast, a single-cell fungus that splits and multiplies quickly, eats sugars in the boiled barley used for making beer and converts them to carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Banking big on microscopic yeast
The pair are currently completing graduate degrees in the University of Guelph's department of microbiology. More importantly, they are home-brewers who recognized that tiny yeast held a world of possibilities that could help them capitalize on the burgeoning craft brewery scene in the province – and indeed across the country.
A year or so ago, Ross and Preiss launched Escarpment Laboratories, a company that produces, banks and sells yeast for brewing. Their original plan as a start-up was simply to provide a bit of yeast to breweries and get some beer in return, according to Ross.
"Richard and I, we were in a yeast research lab together, and he was saving yeast for his home-brew operation. I basically approached him and said I think breweries might be interested in this," Ross said.
"We approached Royal City Brewing here in Guelph. They were really keen to have us on board as their resident yeast guys, and they gave us a few growlers."
However, like the yeast itself, the idea multiplied and took on a life of its own. They started applying for grants in October, 2014, and incorporated in February, 2015.
Filling a niche in commercial brewing
The quick interest they saw encouraged Ross and Preiss to create a business (Nate Ferguson of Niagara College is also a company co-founder). With help from the University of Guelph's Centre for Business and Social Entrepreneurship, they learned about getting a start-up off the ground, searched for funding and collaborated with local microbreweries to develop local yeasts.
"When we told more breweries that we were doing this, there was a lot of positive response so we decided to take it from there and actually build a business out of it," says Ross.
And a unique business it is: while there are a couple of dry yeast suppliers in Canada, Escarpment claims to be the only liquid yeast supplier. Liquid yeast for brewing, compared to the dry yeast you might use for baking, is a slurry that is the thickness of a milkshake.
Escarpment has banked a "catalogue" of 400 strains, 12 of which are sold regularly to commercial brewers, usually in batches of two to eight litres.
"In the United States, it is a bit of a different story," says Ross of their position in the market. "There are three big-name players in the liquid yeast business. Then there are a handful of liquid yeast companies that are a bit smaller that have more of a local slant, more of a local niche. We want to carve out that same niche in Canada."
Regional yeast for regional beer
As they wandered through apple orchards to "harvest" wild (or what is known as ambient) Ontario yeasts, they began to see what Ross says is the beginning of an Ontario terroir. He won't disclose where they collected yeasts for proprietary reasons. "We want to keep locations and sources to ourselves."
He adds that they have to be protective of their tiny microbes.
"Because our yeasts aren't genetically modified, there are no legal protections for our products," he says. "What we can do to protect ourselves is to have trade secrets. There are particular ways that we grow the yeast and meeting ingredient protocols that we can keep close to our chest and make it hard for people to replicate what we're doing."
It's all part of an increasingly competitive craft-beer market, and Escarpment believes they can help brewers create unique and local flavours, says Ross.
"We have noticed that yeast can obviously provide a lot of flavour to beer and what we have seen is that there is a lot of interest in using regional yeasts to make regional beer that has a unique flavour profile that is really distinguishable from the normal beer that you would make using a regularly available commercial yeast," Ross says.
He notes that the popular Block Three Brewing Company in St. Jacobs, Ont., is doing interesting things with their beer and Escarpment yeasts. In addition to working with brewers in Waterloo Region and Wellington County, they sell yeast to commercial brewers across Canada and beyond.
Ross says he was contacted by a small Florida brewer interested in one of their yeast isolations just this week.
Escarpment Laboratories operates out of space at Guelph's Wellington Brewery that was their pilot facility, but they are now finalizing plans for their own venue in Guelph. So, like their wild yeasts, Escarpment will soon have their own territory.
Ross says they've landed on Beverley Street in Guelph's St. Patrick's Ward neighbourhood. "We've signed the lease and are working with contractors. We hope to be functioning by late summer."
More food columns from Andrew Coppolino. Andrew's radio report is heard on CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition Friday mornings.