Among the millions of words of DIY brewing advice scattered across the internet, those about building up yeast strains are among the most popular. The agriculture of hops and barley makes those raw ingredients of beer difficult to bring to life for anyone, but over and over, the process of propagating yeast is presented as an opportunity any random brewer can take advantage of with a few pieces of equipment and ambition.
You’d think that kind of determination might lie in something of an ethical gray area when it comes to constructing a beer from someone else’s, but the American Homebrewers Association lays it out in 13 detailed steps. In John Palmer’s How to Brew, chapter six shows a method “used for cloning some of the specialty styles, such as Belgian Wit, Trappist Ales, or everyone's favorite - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.” Even Bell’s Brewery tells drinkers—right on its company blog, no less—"We don’t offer our house yeast for sale. But since we don’t filter any of our ales either, you can harvest it directly from the bottle or can.”
These are, of course, meant to be directed toward the millions of homebrewers around the world. Innocent and helpful how-to’s that build excitement around creating beer. But what if it all applies to the pros, too?
“There’s little you can do to protect and little you should do to try and protect a ‘house’ strain,” says Levi Funk, founder and blender at Madison, Wisconsin’s Funk Factory Geuzeria. “I don’t really subscribe to the idea that yeast is an intellectual property.”
Yeast is all around us, after all. In the beer we drink and the air we breathe.
“What there could be issue with is if labs are selling yeast varieties and if they’re using a brewery that they cultivate it from to market the yeast strain,” Funk adds. “If they’re using branding, name, imagery, or anything like that without approval, I think there’s a legal case and you shouldn’t be doing that.”
And there lies the gray area of commercial yeast use. If the industry encourages its fans to source the microscopic fungus from all sorts of places—including world-famous beers they drink—why should it police peers who do it professionally?
In a 2015 interview with GBH, Sante Adairius Rustic Ales co-founder Adair Paterno shared a story of an email she had recently received after someone learned the brewery banked its yeast with San Jose-based lab, GigaYeast.
“He thought that he could go ahead and buy it from them and wanted to make sure we were okay with that before he went ahead and did it,” she told Michael Kiser. “Of course, that’s not the case. We said no, you can’t do that, but that you can probably get bottle dregs from our bottles and get the same results.”
It’s between these two opposing ideas that a common understanding overlaps. Straight up taking yeast in “natural” form from a lab is frowned upon, but trying to propagate it through a purchased can or bottle is considered a different action, sometimes met with a “good luck” from the origin brewer with hope of something new coming from the use.
“We encourage people to work with our yeast,” Paterno said in the GBH interview. “If you look at commercial breweries that use the same commercial strains of yeast, they get different results based on their technique, their brewing system, their water, so I’m not too concerned that there's another place that will take our house flavor away.”
But it would be a bad thing if brewers stopped trying to build on that yeast, attempting to create new blends and strains that might push flavor forward.
“Our culture comes from years and years and years of collecting different bottle dregs, and building them up, and tasting them, selecting for things we like,” she said. “I’d hope that people continue to do that rather than just try to make funky beers by buying a commercial strain.”
In a way, it perpetuates the idea of brewing as something of an open-source profession. Even though hops can be bought from anywhere and water can be treated with a host of additives, geography makes it nearly impossible to perfectly replicate a beer from place to place, even in the same city. Taking a yeast from one brewery to use in another may theoretically provide similar opportunities for flavor, but all the variables that come with a different location, equipment, and people push that possibility continually toward zero.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the try.
Funk has had no issue in the past selling or sharing dregs from his brewery, providing homebrewers or professionals with yeast from his spontaneously-fermented beers. A core reason is a direct callout to the ethos of “craft beer” as a way to keep things natural or authentic. “I think it’s valuable for the growth of the industry to move away from Lambic smack packs and use something that is an actual wild culture,” he says.
Whether a local homebrew club or an online sale, Funk has, on occasion, sold his yeast to amateurs and shared with peers a few times in the past year. He believes that, like himself, “99% of brewers” in the U.S. industry are happy to provide yeast because, while there’s excitement in using yeast from heralded breweries, “you can’t take our house culture and just propagate it and continually use it,” he notes. “Eventually it’s going to morph.”
This is a reason why yeast companies from coast-to-coast are eager to find ways to use strains made popular by individual breweries, but walk a fine line between ideas of intellectual property and marketing. Browse through a professional yeast lab’s list of cultures and it’s easy to spot—generic references to breweries in broad geographic regions. Legally, it’s a necessary step from companies who can’t use the specific name of a source, but it’s also practical. A lab may be able to isolate a strain for a top-rated beer from Untappd, but its eventual end game won’t be a 100% copy of the origin species. It's kind of like the way shoppers find products at the grocery store, where ice cream might have chocolate cookies in it, but name dropping “Oreo” is a step too far.
San Jose's GigaYeast has its Quebec Abbey Ale Yeast, which came from "one of the first breweries in North America to create a successful line of traditional Abbey style ales." Yeast Bay carries Brettanomyces Bruxellensis Strain TYB207, which was isolated “from a Belgian-inspired brewery in the Northeastern United States.” White Labs sells WLP076 Old Sonoma Ale Yeast, which came from a “historic brewery in Northern California” and “was embraced by the early pioneers of craft beer in America.”
That last example is an unconfirmed callout to New Albion Brewery, a connection made by other companies and homebrewers, but purposefully left vague by White Labs itself. Unlike some peers, White Labs’ list of yeast strains is mostly devoid of on-the-nose references with the exception of Old Sonoma or WLP815 Belgian Lager Yeast, which comes from “a very old brewery in west Belgium.”
"I recognize that it's sometimes difficult to come up with a name or description, but you could cross a line if you start using names that don't really belong to you," says Chris White, president and CEO of the company.
White says that he's aware of examples where other yeast suppliers have used his company's strains in their own creations or blends, but the variation in how different labs propagate, build, and store strains can ultimately create subtle differences in what's sold to brewers.
"I think what happens on the producer end is really important on the strain itself," he says. "We've gone through a lot of work to collect and maintain some of our strains."
One of the most popular yeast varieties that appears on list after list of strains available for sale is Conan, made popular by breweries like The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead for its use in New England IPAs. Sometimes it’ll appear for sale with a general name like Vermont Ale, but it’s also easy to find direct reference. Omega Yeast, a Chicago-based lab, uses the actual name in the description for its DIPA Ale yeast, which goes on to say the "strain is thought to originate from an often-hunted, soaringly-rated Vermont beer.”
That beer, of course, is Heady Topper.
“A homebrewer brought me a can of it,” says Lance Shaner, owner of Omega Yeast. “They were culturing it out of a can.”
Of all those involved on the yeast side of the beer industry, Shaner has a unique perspective. He has a PhD in biomedical sciences from the University of Texas and a law degree from the University of Houston. His specialty as an associate at Chicago's Marshall, Gerstein & Borun was patent law.
In a case of legality, you can’t patent a product of nature like yeast, Shaner points out, but there are workarounds. Name, for instance. “All the yeast providers have a Chico strain,” Shaner says of the yeast made famous by Sierra Nevada. “White Labs calls it California, Wyeast call is 1056 American Ale, Fermentis is US-05. That’s their trademark on that product.”
Omega’s version is West Coast Ale I, which namedrops "Chico" in its description.
But most importantly, Shaner says he also considers the same issue that Funk raises: having a yeast—let alone not knowing its generation of propagation from its origin brewery—doesn’t mean it’s going to be an elixir for other brewers who want to make the Next Big Thing.
“Honestly, even if you had a recipe in front of you with the malt, hops and yeast, even then you’re not going to duplicate another beer,” he says. “It’s just not that easy.”
Of the roughly 150 strains managed at Omega, Shaner estimates about a third have been propagated from beers he or his business partner have purchased from the store or received from homebrewers. He has a strict policy to never resell any strains banked by commercial brewers, unless explicitly given permission. Doubly so, he says the company doesn’t use a brewery's name specifically in marketing, which is why Omega uses general descriptors for things like Where Da Funk?, which includes "one Brett-famous Colorado strain," in its description.
“If a brewer is reading a description like that, they’ll be able to figure out where it comes from,” Shaner says. It's meant to be an in-the-know, yet kind-of-secret, namedrop.
"Trying not to lose ourselves in this moment, but we are releasing our first true Wild beer today," Mikerphone Brewing posted to its Facebook page on June 28. A new release, Mom's Spaghetti, wasn't just limited, but special. It included yeast strains from Logsdon Farm Brewery, Funk Factory, and Hill Farmstead. The post garnered 344 reactions, 99 comments, and 28 shares—above average compared to most posts, but not out of the ordinary for special release announcements.
It was an exciting way for the Chicagoland brewery to create something new. Along with its own yeast, founder Mike Pallen had been gifted a Nalgene bottle of Funk Factory's "house" culture from Funk. Pallen, also head brewer at Mikerphone, ordered a special yeast blend from Omega he described as a mix of “East Coast farmhouse yeast and West Coast wild yeast,” he tells GBH.
“I was doing my due diligence because I don’t want to put anything in my beer if I don’t know where it’s from,” Pallen adds. “So I asked the question.”
Omega’s C2C American Farmhouse, strain OYL-217, is described as a “blend of one saison strain from a famous Northeast U.S. brewery and one Brett strain from a Northwest U.S. brewery.” Emphasizing he’s always cautious of what goes into recipes, Pallen was told strains in the blend had originated from Logsdon and Hill Farmstead, which is how the references wound up in the announcement. Despite the strains’ origins, there still isn’t a way to recreate the exact kind of “house flavor” such a thing would provide. As such, the trio of breweries were celebrated in the Facebook post, but weren’t listed on the bottle or mentioned as collaborative partners. The goal was to recognize icons of the industry, not capitalize on their name for marketing's sake.
“In this world that we’re in, there is a good brotherhood and good camaraderie,” Pallen says. “In my mind, it’s good to pay homage to those people we respect.”
The act, he notes, was similar to how he likes to acknowledge ingredients in all his beers, creating transparency about whether they include chocolate from from Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. or are aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. It’s something Pallen has done since he was blogging about recipes as a homebrewer.
“It’s very different if I, as a brewery, go and buy a bottle of Sante Adairius, grow their culture for my beer, then later on say that it was a collaboration,” says Funk, who supports an “open source” mentality when it comes to sharing yeast. The line he draws, for himself or others, is if a brewery were to explicitly market a beer as a collaboration when one hasn’t occurred.
For example, Funk referenced a collaboration beer made with Colorado’s Atom Brewing, Forklifts Are for Mitches, in which he discussed the beer’s recipe and supplied some of the yeast used in fermentation, but wasn’t hands-on in the process. Despite “moderate involvement,” he still welcomed his business’ name listed as a collaborator a) because he was asked, and b) Atom’s Jeff and Chris Porn wanted to honor the involvement in that way.
Shaun Hill, founder of Hill Farmstead, believes that, at its core, an argument around a naturally-occurring beer ingredient like yeast and its difficult connection to intellectual property is based on ideas of respect and legality. Peers should be mindful of what each other have used and created, and what that means in the marketplace.
“No idea is original and nothing exists in a vacuum,” he tells GBH. “But what you decide to do with information and how you try to make something your own is ultimately about being a fair business person.”
And with a very specific case of an ingredient like yeast, it exists in a strange middle ground where there isn’t always a true chain of custody or awareness of what could happen with it. Fellowship among industry pros suggests it would be an uncommon issue to address, but sourcing inspiration has also led to consideration of what could—or should—be next.
In the world of yeast, then, the new challenge has become making something original.
“You can spend a lot of time developing and releasing new yeast strains, but it can easily be taken by others,” White told GBH last year. That’s why White Labs now has its own R&D department: use science to make something new, and you’ll have legal protections that don’t exist otherwise. There are positives to have more control over what is sold commercially and who can sell it, White noted.
As White Labs and others find ways to move beyond “common use” yeast—ubiquitous strains that virtually all competitors sell—the propagation and marketing of cultures derived from beloved breweries is likely to remain one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry. For every generic descriptor meant to be anything but, like GigaYeast's GY080 Irish Stout Yeast from "one of the most famous stouts in the world,” there’s an instance like Wyeast’s London Ale III 1318, widely rumored to be a strain of choice at Hill Farmstead, itself originating from “a traditional London brewery.”
There are layers upon layers to these products, adding extra confusion to the murky ethical conundrum of fermentation science and ownership, all brought together at the fine line of marketing, which can be seen as the place not to cross. It’s a rare case of awkwardly trying to fit the laws of nature within the laws of humans.
“Brewers yeast was domesticated by brewers over hundreds and thousands of years,” White tells GBH, “so it was adapted by people long before us.”
Who owns what, how, and when, if at all, only confuses matters more. If things have existed until this point in a state of universal camaraderie, it was first because nature willed it as such, then pushed forward by a culture built around sharing insight and expertise. But perhaps it’s all evolved, as competition has a way of forcing the hand of those going after the same end game of space in your fridge and money from your wallet.
If today’s innovations are built on the shoulders of giants that came before, it presents the opportunity for balance among brewers. Benefit literally and figuratively from what came before, but be mindful of what’s to come. Yeast may be everywhere, but there’s only so much beer to go around.