“Beer nerds” and Guelph prof develop first-ever Ontario liquid brewer’s yeast

BeersOntario’s craft brewers will soon be able to source their liquid brewer’s yeast right here at home, thanks to the work of a University of Guelph professor and two of his beer-loving graduate students.

Currently, local craft beers are almost all brewed with yeasts imported from the United States, but Dr. George van der Merwe, Angus Ross, and Richard Preiss have developed made-in-Ontario yeasts that they’re now working to bring to market.

“My two grad students are self-proclaimed “beer nerds”. These guys are phenomenal and they’ve now started their own company, Escarpment Labs,” explains van der Merwe. “We have a selection of yeasts we’ve isolated and the goal is to serve craft brewers in Ontario with locally produced liquid yeast.”

Angus Ross and George with mini vats - web

Angus Ross, Richard Preiss and George van der Merwe at Royal City Brewing

And they’ve just been awarded funding through the University of Guelph’s 2015 Gryphon’s LAAIR (Leading to Accelerated Adoption of Innovative Research), a program where researchers can make a pitch to a panel of experts for financial support to commercialize promising discoveries.

Once they had isolated the yeasts, van der Merwe and his students started testing them in small, lab-sized batches to evaluate how well they work and what the resulting beer smells and tastes like.

They then gave some yeast strains to local Guelph breweries to try – and they ended up liking some of them.

Angus George and Ross with beer - web

George van der Merwe, center, flanked by “beer nerds” Angus Ross and Richard Preiss

The LAAIR funding will help the team test larger batches and look at scalability, as well as establishing the technical information brewers will need to actually work with the yeasts in their facilities, such as temperature range for fermentation, alcohol tolerances, and desirable flavours.

“Our yeasts have a unique flavour profile that sets us apart, and once we have that critical information, we are moving into the market with the yeasts and gathering feedback from brewers,” he says. “We have a receptor market; there is definitely interest in Ontario from the craft brewers for this.”

The fresher the yeast, the better he adds, but because there are no Canadian suppliers, Ontario craft brewers have to import their liquid yeasts from a handful of U.S. suppliers.

Not only is this costly, but lengthy shipping times and potential delays at the border diminish the yeast’s performance during brewing, which can impact product quality.

Mini vats - web

Small vats of test brews at Royal City Brewing

Year one of the LAAIR project includes setting up a yeast screening pipeline with interested brewers, performing fermentations at different temperatures, testing yeast viability, and completing flavour profile and sensory analysis.

Year two will focus on market analysis and evaluating the feedback from participating brewers in order to address any potential concerns or problems with the Ontario yeasts.

“Craft brewing is a growing market that has more than quadrupled in the last four years, so we know we can build a market here,” van der Merwe says. “Ontario yeasts have a unique flavour profile so we are generating a regional identity that will give our craft brewers a leg up in a competitive industry. It’s still early days but the initial indicators are very positive.”

Escarpment Labs received start-up support from the University of Guelph’s Hub Incubator program, which offers funding, dedicated office space, and access to experienced entrepreneurs to Guelph students and alumni working on innovative projects.

Van der Merwe also credits Wellington and Royal City Breweries with providing basic brewing materials and collaboration to the project.

The Gryphon’s LAAIR program is supported through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

You can find Escarpment Labs online: on their website, on Twitter and on Instagram.