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Lost Rhino Ferments with Ashburn Yeast

As homebrewers will tell you, it is infinitely easier to put yeast into beer than to take it out. And what if you are using more than one yeast strain? Could you separate the two? Or three? Or more?

Yeast strains that ferment delicious, delicate final product such as lager or Kolsch, are no match for rowdy in-your-face flavors imparted by lactobacillus or pediococcus. I’m not saying that lambic is superior to lager but from a palate perspective try picking out the delicate subtleties of a malty, hoppy, or fruity kolsch after drinking a decade-old lambic.

Lost Rhino’s newest collaboration is fermented with wild Virginia yeast. To be clear, this beer was not fermented with brettanomyces, lactobacillus, or pediococcus. The yeast that was used was wild yeast, captured by Jasper Akerboom and Peter Lee on Janelia Farm, a research center in Ashburn, Virginia. Akerboom is himself a homebrewer and works on isolating yeast strains as a hobby.

The beer is a hybrid, an amalgamation of American and German wheat styles. It pours as hazy as Jimi Hendrix’s green room; the yeast is not highly flocculent and has the classic haze wheat beers are known for. It is hoppier than your average German wheat with about 30 IBUs and is around 5% ABV. The grain bill was 30% wheat and 70% pilsner malts and was hopped with both Cascade and Saaz. There is a slight balance of sweetness from the pilsner malt and tartness, presumably from the yeast strain and the funky notes are undoubtedly departed from the Saaz hops.

Here is a summary from the brewery:

Jasper Akerboom and Peter Lee are both scientist at Howard Hughes' Janelia Farm, located in Ashburn. Taking a scientific approach towards brewing (Jasper has a PhD in microbiology and food technology, Peter has worked in large-scale process and discovery chemistry in industry), they wanted to focus on beers brewed with locally isolated yeasts. Jasper isolated several interesting strains and brewed small-scale test batches. After meeting Lost Rhino brewmaster Favio Garcia, they knew they shared the same passion for locally crafted beer using local ingredients, including local yeast. The idea for a summer beer using local yeast was born. They teamed up and designed a hoppy wheat beer for summer: Wild Farmwell Wheat.

As homebrewers or scientists will tell you, yeast is all around us. It’s the isolation of a single strain that is really quite a feat. Similarly impressive is the viability of that yeast; taking it from a small, microscopic state to grow it big enough to pitch into a 5-gallon batch. Then of course it needs to turn the wort in the 5-gallon batch into alcohol. The only thing more challenging would be to grow the yeast into a slurry big enough to pitch into a 500-gallon batch and ferment the whole thing down to the delicious beverage we know as beer.

Akerboom grew a tiny cell into a big slurry to ferment his own brew before bringing it into Lost Rhino’s brewhouse. But how did he do it? With a mason jar and some fly netting. And some honey and apple juice. Plus a microscope and a streaked plate of media. Akerboom has successfully isolated other strains from well-known yeast banks, as well as from commercial and craft bottles.

When it was all said and done, Akerboom had separated the unusable yeast from the viable. He wound up isolating two viable strains, the first of which was used in the Wild Summer Wheat. He has a nice detailing of the brewdays here and here. It helped that Akerboom had a rough idea of what the yeasts could do—having used them in his homebrew. It also helped that head brewer Favio Garcia is no stranger to collaboration and was willing to let a homebrewer provide the yeast.

As it is now, not many breweries isolate their own yeast. Why would they, when they could borrow some from a friend’s brewery, or, go online and place an order? As you may know, it has long been the desire of Matt Hagerman and Favio Garcia to brew an all-Virginia beer. As Greg Engert put it to an inquisitive Stefanie Gans in Northern Virginia Magazine’s Summer Beer Issues, a local brewery just means that the beer was brewed locally. Ingredients are typically sourced from all over the world to create the consistent craft beers we have come to know and love in the DMV. The same is largely true of American craft brewers on a whole. There are some exceptions, and so it is important to give credit where credit is due, especially when it comes to sourcing and using local ingredients.

With the use of an isolated Virginia yeast strain, Lost Rhino is one step closer to making it happen. All they need now are Virginia hops and barley and they’re ready to go. Perhaps they can even age some of it in Virginia Gentleman barrels. Barrel-aged Rhino Gentleman anyone?

While it seems batch #2 of the Wild Farmwell Wheat has yet to hit markets it will likely taste different. The second batch started at a lower gravity (14.1 ºP for the first batch and 12.5 ºP for the second) and a third batch was brewed on Wednesday. It seems the once completely wild yeast strain will turn more domesticated. This will continue to affect the beer’s flavor profile and perhaps the hybrid of American and German wheat will take a more nuanced step towards European or New World style.

Akerboom continues to isolate more yeast strains and I am happy to say that I am soon to brew with the wilds he isolated. I am planning to use them in some homebrew and look forward to sharing the results with anyone who is interested. Feel free to drop me a line in the comments if you are interested in the final product, it should be at a DCHomebrewers meeting in the not too distant future.

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