Upland Brewing asks Indy scientist to solve sour problem 

How the science of microbiology saved an Indianapolis microbrewer's sour beer

Caleb Staton, Upland’s Director of Sour Operations laid out the problem. “We had failed twice to successfully create a carbonated version of Cauldron after 
click to enlarge upland-brewing-logo-new.jpg
 following our typical procedure of adding dried yeast and dextrose sugar prior to the bottling run.”

That translates into a lot of beer that did not happen. Cauldron’s description invites you to reach for a snifter and sip until it’s empty — “Inside this vessel resides one part Malefactor Epic Flanders-style Red Ale and one part Dandelion Dark Wild Ale. Blended and aged on Northern Michigan Montgomery cherries, the melding of these two beers creates a complex Sour Ale with notes of spices, charred oak and copious cherry fruit character.”

Carbonated naturally by yeast in the bottles, Sours do their thing as if by magic. Trouble started when Staton tried “the more commonly utilized procedure of force carbonating beer to specification, prior to filling bottles.”

After two batches gone awry, Staton turned to Matthew Bochman, an assistant professor in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. Bochman — who happens to have an affinity for beer — is a craft brewing consultant. Dr. Bochman and Brewmaster Staton set up a collaborative experiment that also included Adam Covey from Upland, Cody Rogers, a graduate student at IU Bloomington, and Devon Veatch, a student at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

“In a nutshell, we came up with an easy fix for the problem Upland was having,” explained Bochman. “It doesn't involve anything super-technical, nor does it require special equipment. Cauldron is such an extreme beer (low pH, high alcohol, etc.) that it was shocking the yeast they were trying to use for bottle conditioning, basically shutting them [yeast] down metabolically.  We were able to adapt the yeast to growth in Cauldron simply by incubating them in a 50-50 mix of Cauldron and our normal rich medium for yeast growth.  After that, the yeast could be added to the batch of Cauldron with sugar and bottled as usual for conditioning.”

Staton reiterated, to make sure I got the point: “Matt hypothesized that due to the acidity and higher alcohol content of Cauldron, it was creating a difficult environment for the yeast to perform the conditioning in a reliable way. By growing the bottle conditioning yeast in a media composed of sugar and the sour beer itself, he found the yeast could be acclimated prior to the bottling process. We changed our procedure according to his findings, and our third run of Cauldron was a success.”

But there’s another part to this story beyond benefitting those of us hankering for that rich taste of Cauldron, currently available for purchase.

click to enlarge UPLAND BREWING CO.
  • Upland Brewing Co.

“Matt helped us solve a real world problem with his investigation, and we are happy to share the information, especially if it has usefulness at other breweries that may be struggling with similar issues,” added Staton.

“The main focus of my lab at IU is basic research into what keeps our genomes happy and healthy (DNA replication and repair),” explained Bochman when I asked what his “real job” is.  “The stuff we do has links to cancer and various other diseases, but we don't currently do anything clinical or directly translatable to medicine.  We're trying to figure out how things work at a molecular level to shed light on why one gets cancer when things go wrong.

“On the yeast and fermentation side of things, I'm interested in wild yeasts (and non-Saccharomyces strains) and their brewing potential, as well as what some people might consider bio-process engineering.  For instance, how can I optimize honey or molasses fermentations — something I've been doing a little work on with Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington.  I'd love to devote more of the academic lab to this type of stuff, but for the moment, I haven't found a way to fund research on alcohol,” summarized Bochman. Musing on possibilities he added,  “I guess there's always Kickstarter…”

But Bochman is not totally out of the framework. As a recipient of $13,000 from the Johnson Center for Innovation and Translational Research at IU Bloomington, this one-year grant funded the creation of Wild Pitch Yeast; a company that assists craft brewers and homebrewers with the extraction of brewer's yeasts from local sources such as berries, flowers and tree bark. The company then offers  the results for re-sale, according to a news release from IU Bloomington. “The company has already banked about 300 strains of yeast, primarily from Midwestern states such as Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Bochman has also filed intellectual property disclosures on a number of the strains for potential licensing. His partners on the business side are Rob Caputo, executive director of the Brewers of Indiana Guild, and Justin Miller of Black Acre Brewing,” adds the news release.

“The company currently really is only an entity on paper that subcontracts out work to my lab at IU,” explained Bochman.  “We store all of our strains in Simon Hall [on the IU Bloomington campus] along with the other yeasts that we use for our main research.  The hope is that we can build up a customer base and slush fund to open our own lab space though.
“I know that one of the [Brewers of Indiana] Guild's focuses is on education, and hopefully we'll see more of this type of thing in the future.  Rob, Justin and I have discussed running a lab boot camp — via Wild Pitch Yeast — for craft brewers to learn practical yeast handling and some simple lab analytics.  Whether they know it or not, every brewer out there is a citizen-scientist (microbiologist, chemist, etc.), and the more they know about the details of what's going on, the better control and consistency they can have.

click image Cody Rogers, Matthew Bochman, and Caleb Staton - JAMES BROSHER/INDIANA UNIVERSITY
  • Cody Rogers, Matthew Bochman, and Caleb Staton
  • James Brosher/Indiana University

“It is great that Upland agreed to share our work with everyone in Food Microbiology.  Some places probably would have wanted to keep it a trade secret, but now no one else needs to reinvent the wheel.  I'm hoping that the Guild will want to archive a copy of the paper [published in the current Journal] on their website for educational purposes.  That way, you won't need a subscription to Food Microbiology to access the details.  I'm also adding a copy to my lab website, and a free version is already available on my Research Gate profile: (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Matthew_Bochman/contributions).

“Matt helped us solve a real world problem with his investigation,” wrapped up Staton. “We [at Upland] are happy to share the information, especially if it has usefulness at other breweries that may be struggling with similar issues. We currently have Cauldron available for purchase at our retail locations if anyone would like to taste the refreshingly carbonated positive impact of science.”

For another take on this story, head over to Science At Work, a blog by Kevin Fryling from Indiana University. 

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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