Before we get into this article, I wanted to share with you an few updates. First, I took the giant leap and am on social media, however only in a homebrew sense. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook as “Brouwerij Chugach.” This way you can follow along all the other updates, photos, and simply join me in sharing what we’re doing with beer. (As you know, I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m always ad-free! – and there’s no other reason to join than to share the knowledge and inspiration.) I hope to see you soon!
For those of you who frequent this blog (as often as it is) you’ll know that there’s more to my brewing than just a bunch of numbers and ingredients. There’s some romantic notion in my head when I brew, especially when making a wild beer. For me, a wild beer not only tastes delicious, but captures a place and a time that can never be repeated. Most of my sour beers are several years old by the time I drink them, and they give me a chance to reflect – what was I doing three years ago? However, a wild beer (one that is fermented from the wild) captures a time and a place. This post documents the trip I took to capture the time and place for an upcoming brew. It’s pretty Alaska photo heavy, but it’s hard not to be when the scenery is like this. Plus, it’s my damn blog 🙂
As wild & sour beer is becoming more and more popular, many brewers and breweries are attempting to make the “next” best wild beer. There are many methods when dealing with the grist, hopping, and souring techniques. One of the most popular ingredients to experiment with is yeast. Being the unicellular organism responsible for fermentation, it’s pretty easy to say that we as brewers set the stage: the yeast are the cast and crew of the beer-making show.
While White Labs and WYeast have dominated most of the commercially-available liquid yeast for several decades, there are many new yeast suppliers providing an even broader spectrum of yeast strains for the home brewer. If that isn’t great enough, they’re also starting to provide us with brettanomyces, other bacteria cultures, and blends. (For a full list of yeast suppliers, check here on the Milk the Funk Wiki.) Even greater, as a brewer you have the ability to go and get your own yeast as well!
This post deviates from my “regularly scheduled programming” as it does not provide conclusive results of any beer. I’m sharing this with you to remind you that this is the time to go yeast harvesting! While spring and fall are generally considered good times for coolshipping, fall is a great time to get some wild yeast from flowering blossoms and fruit on the vine.
This past week my youngest brother moved back to Anchorage where my other brother and I reside. We decided to celebrate with a weekend of heading out to the Nelchina Public Use area just past the Eureka Roadhouse, on the way to Glennallen. Fall is just starting to hit some parts of Alaska, and that clicked off a reminder for me that it’s yeast wrangling time – so I packed some dried malt extract and some mason jars in hopes of finding the next best thing. We packed up my brother’s new side-by-side 4×4 and met up Friday evening. After an evening ride out to a gorgeous overlook we slammed a few beers, crashed, and woke up early to go exploring. With hunting season having recently opened August 20th, the few other riders we saw asked us if we were out hunting. I resisted with all my might not to say, “Well of course! By the way, what kind of media are you going to be propagating your microbes with?”
The next morning we packed up everything we’d need for the day: a hi-jack, extra clothes, rain gear, food, water, and a few slugs in the 12 gauge (for bears), just in case we ended up stuck somewhere. We were two hours out of town and heading towards the mountains almost twenty miles off the nearest highway. If we got stuck in the mud or if the engine quit, it wasn’t a sure bet we’d be able to get out right away. I put a few videos up on youtube if you want to see what it was like that day. Here’s one. Here’s another one with even more exciting terrain.
Due to the bouncing around that ensued while the four wheeler was in motion, I decided not to fill with the wort I’d be using; I just collected samples in the mason jars. The first place we stopped was atop an overlook before we headed down into a canyon. [Location: 62°02’28.1″N 147°19’44.6″W] With a slight breeze in the air, I thought this might be a fun place for a collection. I sliced off a few crowberries stems and put them into Jar #1. We took in the views and headed out.
After cruising around a bit more, we headed down a valley toward a riverbed that looked fun. My brother found a rock filled with oceanic-looking fossils… interesting! But not as interesting as the wildflower I found to add to Jar #2. [Location: 62°04’20.1″N 147°22’01.8″W] Gotcha!
We tried taking the river downstream and explore further, but after the first set of water came over the hood we decided to head back the way we had come. We paused on the way back to pick a few blueberries – they were insanely thick and I can’t resist a blueberry pie. Hopefully, neither could the yeast; Jar #3 was filled with blueberry bush stems with the delicious fruit still attached. [Location 62°01’12.1″N 147°11’13.1″W]
After picking a gallon of berries, we went back to camp and crushed a few more brews. I noticed some Fireweed on the far side of our camp and filled Jar #4 with some blossoms. [Location: 61°57’35.4″N 147°07’34.9″W].
When I got back home, I boiled up some wort to gravity 1.020 and filled each jar 2/3 full. I also trimmed each set of branches/flowers so they would all be under the wort. I chose a low gravity wort to gently introduce the yeast to their new lives. After they’ve fermented out, I’ll step them up with 1.030 and then 1.040 wort. Each time I step them up, I’ll taste the discarded fermented-out wort to assess flavor. If one them tastes like “assess” with one less “s”, then I’ll probably dump it out.
What do you need to do to capture your own yeast? Do you have to travel to the backwoods of Alaska? Good news! You don’t! All you need are a few mason jars, something to cut a sample or swab one, and some malt extract to help step up your yeast as quickly as possible. If you want to go the easy route, Bootleg Biology offers a yeast wrangling kit that has everything you need! You can even send your yeast off to their Chief Wrangler and he just might culture it up for you.
I hope this has inspired you to give some yeast wrangling a try. It’s simple, fun, and there isn’t a lot of special equipment needed to get started. Yeast hunting is a great way to get outside and capture a few memories you can share over a bottle of homebrew in several years.