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Yeast master Jess Caudill talks brewing

In July, Hood River News presents The Ale List, a month-long series of articles profiling the producers and purveyors of beer in Hood River County, as part of Oregon Craft Beer Month.

Next stop: A source for the key ingredient — yeast — used in much of the beer made worldwide, is located here in Hood River: Wyeast Laboratories, maker and maintainer of hundreds of varieties of yeast used in making beer and wine.

Hood River News caught up on the burgeoning yeast business with Jess Caudill, microbiologist at the firm for the past 10 years and self-described purveyor of “weird beers.” After all, Caudill’s business card reads not microbiologist but “mad scientist.”

Wyeast president Jeannette Kreft-Logsdon founded the company in 1986 in Parkdale. In its 35th year in business, according to Caudill, Wyeast saw another 15 percent hiring increase in 2011.

HRN: What’s behind that success?

Jess: Just the increased demand, from more home brewers getting into the hobby, and the growth in the microbrewing industry.

We have the best product on the market, and our technical support is really big. Most of it’s on the phone. We educate people starting at the website. The most personalized customer service we have is by phone, and we also travel around the world at conferences and educate people in seminars we give.

HRN: Where have you gone recently?

Jess: I go to Australia for a home brewers conference, and often Europe or once in a while South America.

HRN: How many clients does the company now have?

Jess: It’s in the 750 to 1,000 area. The size of the orders varies from one to a couple of hundred liters.

HRN: There’s no sign outside the building; if you will, it’s kind of anonymous, but you can smell the yeast.

Jess: We don’t have any retail sales out of this building; it’s all production and shipping. We are the largest customer for FedEx in the state of Oregon, because everything we do is overnight.

HRN: What are the questions you’re getting from home brewers, and commercial ones? Have there been changes in the yeasts that might change the way they brew?

Jess: No, I think there’s just more of an understanding of the yeasts, and how much of a role yeast plays in brewing, and the proper use of yeast and proper brewing techniques are huge factors in the flavor of the beer. Before Wyeast came along, your options were dried yeast packets, and it was very limited in the kinds you could get, and so brewers’ mentality was yeast is one ingredient you kind of threw in.

HRN: Brewers knew they needed it but its style or quality was not all that critical.

Jess: Exactly. But brewers are getting a lot more knowledgeable about what yeast does, how it works and how to manipulate it.

HRN: So what does yeast do?

Jess: The main thing it does is utilize sugars in the unfinished beer, which is wort, and produces carbon dioxide and ethanol. That’s the main thing that it does, biochemically speaking; but what is also does is produce a lot of flavors and aromas you have in finished beers. And that’s where the understanding of fermentation in the yeast has really played a really big role.

People understand that by manipulating the yeast in a certain way you can manipulate flavors or produce the right kind of flavors you want for a certain style of beer, and that’s where we really spent a lot of time working with our customers and our products, is educating people on that — that the way you use yeast is really important.

Our big push is how much yeast you should use, and we rate that by the number of cells per liter. We use an automated cell counting system, using light microscopy methods to count each live yeast cell, detected via fluorescent dye. Using automated cell counting we get a viable cell amount that we extrapolate to the final product. Something that was missing for a long time on the yeast side was the exact amount of yeast cells.

HRN: You’ve provided brewers with a lot more information now, so it’s a matter of helping them work with what you provide them?

Jess: A lot of time the questions relate to which yeast strain they should use for a certain style of beer. That’s the big one.

HRN: So there might be some choice a brewer might make, and you guide them in “This is the best one,” or “If you decide to use it, here’s what you need to know”?

Jess: All yeast strains have a certain way they work that may work well for one situation but not for another. A lot of times for home brewers the variation may not be extremely important in how the yeast acts, in terms of what flavors it produces; but with breweries there’s a lot of consideration that needs to go into the type of strain.

One big example is when brewers call in for first time ordering and try to figure out which kind of yeast they should use, one of the big questions we ask is if they plan to filter or not.

HRN: In general, over the last 10 years how have things changed in the kind of information people are seeking from you?

Jess: Now, a lot of people are asking how much yeast they should use for their batches; people would take the product and use it, without really even reading the directions on how to use it, and what kind of specifications they need on their wort to make it work well, so now there’s a lot more interest in the cell counts they’re adding to their wort.

People are a lot more knowledgeable about it, so they’re trying to hit a certain cell count when they’re brewing an IPA or a strong beer like a barley wine. They’re thinking about how much yeast they need for the beer to ferment completely.

One big hang-up for a lot of people is they won’t use enough yeast for the sugar levels in their wort, and what will happen is the yeast will stop fermenting before it needs to. The result is there’s a lot of sugar left over and it’s unbalanced and that can be a problem.

HRN: What is Wyeast doing to observe Craft Beer Month?

Jess: Every year one of the big things we do in July is participate in the Oregon Brewers Festival dinner, which starts Thursday. We’ll bring a bunch of our employees to have a chance to basically drink beer and hang out with a lot of customers, many of who bring along beers they’ve made with our yeasts.

HRN: You get to taste some of the end product.

Jess: A lot of people who work here are beer enthusiasts, so we take the time to go drink beer and try different beers. It’s always fun to see what customers are doing with our product, and just knowing that a lot of the beers we’re drinking that were brewed in Oregon and around the world were brewed with our yeast. It’s kind of cool.

HRN: How has your own home brewing changed in the last 10 years?

Jess: I’ve kind of zeroed in on certain styles I like. I’ve always been the one for the kind of crazy beers. I always brew weird beers. There are some guys who work here who are excellent brewers and they brew on a weekly basis. My brewing has slowed down since I had three kids.

HRN: By weird, what do you mean?

Jess: Oh, I like more obscure styles. The one I’ve been working on and messing around with for a few years is Berliner Weisse, a 3 percent alcohol sour wheat beer. I’m a big fan of the sour beers. When I brew, it’ll be that.

HRN: And that’s a style that has seen a rise in popularity in recent years.

Jess: There’s a lot of interest among home brewers in barrel-aged beers. It’s really exploded in the brewing industry, too, in the last three years; a lot of aging beer in barrels and going for what people refer to as “wild fermentations.” There’s a lot of that on the market now, where a few years ago it was just a few breweries.

HRN: It seems the craft of home brewing has evolved from where people were learning about it and then refining it to now where there’s a wider spirit of experi-mentation out there. Does that describe it fairly well?

Jess: Definitely. In the past brewers might have tried to emulate certain beers, a clone of what they found at the store. But now people are experimenting with whatever they want to try out, coming up with a unique flavored beer. So that’s a lot of fun. That’s what I’m interested in. A lot more people willing to take the leap into some funky beers.

HRN: What’s next for Wyeast?

Jess: A lot of it for us is just keeping up with demand. That’s the biggest struggle for the company right now; just being able to keep up with everything. We’re keeping up but we’re hoping to keep growing at the same pace. We’ve really focused on the brewing industry; yeast for brewing beer.

HRN: As a company you’re more focused on yeast for beers?

Jess: Yes, right now we are because there’s such a call for it, especially because of the growth especially in the brewing industry. But the home brewing is growing like crazy, too. They had a recent Seattle home brewing conference, and attendance was through the roof.

HRN: Are carboys the Dalmatian puppies of the hobby world? Are people going to leave them by the curb in a few years?

Jess: I don’t think so. Home brewing has not been like a fad, whereas in some things people get into it and just stop. We see people 21 up to 80, people who have been brewing for 60 years.

HRN: When people start it, they tend to stick with it.

Jess: Yes, and people don’t realize the possibilities when they just get into it. One great thing about the home brewing community is the camaraderie and the socialization that goes with it; not just the making of the beer and drinking it but people getting together to share and talk about it.

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