Former patent attorneys Mark Schwarz and Lance Shaner have built one of the most forward-thinking yeast labs in the world. The cofounders of Chicago’s Omega Yeast supply amateur and professional brewers with singular yeast strains and souring bacteria, delivered fresh, fast, and healthy. Working one-on-one with breweries, Omega provides its clients both peace of mind and an extensive microbial palette to help them brew beers that are both distinctive and distinctly delicious. Schwarz handles business and sales, while Shaner—who’d previously earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics—leads the lab. Together, they’re on a quest to bring brewers new and unusual yeast strains from around the globe, as well as to engineer hybrids that, in the best possible sense, broaden the boundaries of good taste. —Joshua M. Bernstein
SevenFifty Daily: Tell us about your project.
Mark Schwarz: Back in 2013, Lance and I were patent attorneys in Chicago. Another patent attorney, who was starting a brewery, was complaining about yeast; the providers at the time were not very helpful to a startup. Fast-forward five and a half years, and based on what competitors have told us, we propagate yeast wildly differently than anyone else—our yeast is more robust and it works better. We don’t start propagating yeast until a brewer orders it, and we schedule our work around a brewer’s brew day.
Is there a particular issue that you’re trying to address?
Schwarz: We take the yeast worries out of the equation and let brewers focus on brewing beer. We have a lot of brewers who are like, “Hey, I don’t want to deal with this. I’d rather be brewing beer. You guys do it so well, we’re going to leave it to you.” It’s a very intimate relationship.
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Beyond yeast, how does Omega set itself apart from competitors?
Schwarz: Lance knows everything there is to know about yeast. I love being able to step into the shoes of brewers and help them execute their competitive advantages and what they’re trying to do. Lance and I have wildly different views on brewing, and that’s what people appreciate about us. At Omega, we can see both sides.
Lance Shaner: I am frequently the primary contact for customers. They get direct contact with me, and I get to know their brewing goals and help them achieve them.
Schwarz: We really want to be known as the most innovative yeast company. People also really appreciate us releasing new strains. We don’t want to make decisions for the brewer; we want to let brewers make whatever they want, whenever they want to make it. And we go out of our way to be as transparent as possible with pricing and science so people don’t feel like they’re getting a fast one pulled on them.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Shaner: Perseverance. When I took the plunge and left patent law, certain technical problems would pop up. I was like, “Well, I have to figure this out, no matter how long it takes or how expensive it is. This is now my livelihood. I have two young kids and this has to work.”
What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Schwarz: Be nice and be kind. We really, truly try to help our customers. We’re not in it for just another sale. We truly want to be a long-term partner.
What’s your favorite thing to drink?
Shaner: I like the beers made with our Norwegian strains. On our pilot system, we made a 16 percent alcohol barley wine that fermented completely in two days. I’d normally be afraid to try a beer that fermented to 16 percent in two days, but it was incredibly clean and not hot.
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Which three Instagram accounts do you follow most closely?
Shaner: I don’t even have an Instagram account.
Schwarz: Or Facebook.
Shaner: Larsblog by Lars Marius Garshol is one of the most fascinating websites I follow. He talks about Norwegian farmhouse brewing and is starting to tackle farmhouse brewing cultures in other countries. Most of the world has adopted the use of pure yeast strains. Somehow, there are these pockets [where unique native strains] survived.
Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of four books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, and the just-released Homebrew World.