With Groceries Running Low, Craft Brewers Serve Their Communities

Cup with seasonings in the cook's hand. Brewer's yeast.

If you, or someone you know, is newly passionate about breadmaking, you’re in good company.

According to Google Trends, which tracks search interest, “baking bread” reached an all-time high in April. Meanwhile, supermarkets sales of baking yeast climbed 457% the week ending March 28 compared to the same period in 2019, according to Nielsen.

While stores do their best to keep up with demand, some U.S. breweries have stepped up to propagate yeast to sell or donate to local businesses and customers. In doing so, they return craft beer to its community-oriented roots.

“Brewers understand that our job is actually to give the yeast a place to be happy,” says Chris Post, owner of Wandering Star Brewing in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Great beer is just a byproduct of that purpose, he says.

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Beer consists of four basic ingredients: water, yeast, malt and hops. After brewers use water and grains to create wort, they add yeast. It causes fermentation, converts the sugars into alcohol and gives the beer a specific flavor.

Post’s foray into yeast propagation started as a homeschooling science experiment for his children while quarantined. He aimed to grow baking yeast using equipment from his brewery: a glass flask, incubator and a tool called a stir plate, which spins liquids with a small magnet at different speeds, exposing yeast cells to constant oxygen.

Some brewers propagate yeast as a cost-saving measure. Post uses it for his specialty beers.

“It’s simply not cost effective for us to buy a gallon of yeast each time if we’re not going to reuse it,” says Post. “I figured that we would do the same with bread yeast: propagate it and be able to harvest it, give it away and still retain enough of it to continue to grow it and have enough to go around.”

The experiment to propagate baker’s yeast was successful, but Post found that it grows at a much slower rate than brewer’s yeast. The most popular brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is the same species as baking yeast, but the strains are different.

Once he worked out the kinks, Post began to package the yeast into 16-ounce cans, or crowlers. He’s given away 200 crowlers so far. Business has been slow, so it’s an opportunity to support his community and, hopefully, get more people into his brewery.

“If I can do something that gets a needed commodity out into my local community, and I can get some people in the door of my brewery to buy some takeout, then it’s only positive stuff,” says Post.

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Yeast experimentation has long been part of the process for Levi Fried, co-owner of the Long Beach Beer Lab in Long Beach, California. Once the shutdown hit, the experimental brewery and artisan sourdough bakery pivoted quickly to convert part of its space to a convenience store. Once it started to offer grocery staples, “all hell broke loose, but in a good way,” says Fried.

Fried, along with his wife and co-owner, Harmony Sage, mill their flour in-house with California-grown grains. They grind malt into flour for local businesses and customers. Through their existing suppliers, they were able to stock both dry and wet active yeast, as well as wild microflora sourdough starters. They’ve sold more than 500 sourdough starters since March.

Fried and Sage anticipate continuing this hybrid brewery-bakery-grocery model.

“We’ve been finding that our beer has been selling very well coupled with just having each other staple items,” says Fried. “I remember living in Manhattan and being able to go to your bodega to get a four-pack and a bag of flour and some yeast.”

Fried hopes to make the brewery that sort of “one-stop-shop for everybody.”

Published on June 10, 2020
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