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Beer Up North: On the virtues of yeast and other related opinions

In this week's Beer Up North, Jason highlights yeast is one of the emerging frontiers in North American brewing and how it can add some ‘funk’ to a beer
Beer Up North by Jason McLellan

Technically speaking, I suppose one could mix a can of Canada Dry club soda, a splash of Grey Goose, some malt extract, and a few drops of cocktail bitters into a pint glass and call it beer. I’d personally be more apt to call it a vodka barley cocktail, and even less apt to drink it, but nevertheless...

The problem I have with my beer-cocktail recipe is that it would lack the refined flavour elements provided by yeast during the process of fermentation; granted, vodka is a product of fermentation, but any esters left behind as a by-product would be mostly lost in the subsequent distillation process. 

Yeast can make a beer taste clean and dry, or, on the other end of the spectrum, sweet and sour. It can add fruity notes to the flavour profile of beer, or it can make it taste a bit like bread dough. It can quite legitimately add the flavour characteristic of ‘funk’ to a beer, and myriad other tasting notes. In short, it’s what transforms the simple syrupy taste of malt and matures it into something much more enjoyable and palatable.

From my perspective, yeast is one of the emerging frontiers in North American brewing. We’ve become so obsessed with the flavour profiles of hops and all the wonderful things they do for beer, that it has almost become tiresome and unimaginative. Don’t get me wrong – I’m incredibly grateful for the quasi-invention of the hoppy American pale ale that sprang out of the U.S. west coast, sparking the craft beer movement we see before us; but, I am beginning to feel that hoppy beers like the IPA are over-marketed.

On the other hand, beer styles that showcase the flavour-effects created by yeast offer a world of possibilities. We can simply begin with some of the old-world styles – beers like the saison (a personal favourite), characterized by its dry, tart flavour, and lively carbonation. The premiere example is Brasserie Dupont’s Saison, but I’ve also enjoyed some great American takes on the style, including Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Bière and Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace, all often available through the LCBO.

At Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels (an incredible brewery I once visited, where you’re sternly instructed not to disturb the cobwebs), lambic beer is fermented by wild yeast naturally occurring in the air of the brewery; it’s known for its characteristic ‘funky’ taste and is commonly regarded as some of the best beer in the world. Intrigued? Keep an eye open for the occasional offering at the LCBO with the word geuze on the bottle.  It would be unheard of to discover a bottle of Cantillon on LCBO shelves, but lambic beer from other producers is not uncommon.

Not long ago, Stack Brewing did a very limited release of a Northern Harvest ale, which may have quite possibly been the only beer ever made with ingredients solely from Northern Ontario, not accounting for any puddles of fermenting rye that a reckless Northern Ontario ungulate has ever gotten into. One of the highlights of this beer to me was the unique sourness created by the wild yeast they isolated from Sudbury-grown apples.

To add to it, CBC news recently published a story about Big Spruce Brewing on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, brewing a beer with wild yeast they isolated from pin cherries in the region’s Acadian forest! (Oddly enough, I just visited Big Spruce Brewing in September; it’s in a small, rural highway town called Nyanza, and you’d blow right by it if you didn’t know it was there).

It’s exciting to think about the possibilities here in Northern Ontario, to further define our brewing identity by putting our touch on less-marketed styles that are strongly characterized by the flavour-effects of yeast, in a corner of the market where it hasn’t ‘all been done’.  Not to mention the fame and adulation awaiting the ardent brewer who cultivates a yeast strain from the skin of the wild blueberry and creates the first major award-winning beer with a pure Northern Ontario provenance!

All the best and happy 2017!

Stay tuned for a further discussion of the Beer Up North. 

Jason McLellan is a self-professed beer geek.  He wants the world to know he's damn proud of his Northern Ontario roots, even though he couldn't catch a fish if one jumped in the boat. His columns run Wednesdays at 12:00 p.m. 


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