Mark Schwarz was certain that the call from the Lithuanian Consulate was a joke. Why would a Baltic diplomat be contacting his company, Omega Yeast? Schwarz dealt in microbes for brewers, not bureaucratic know-how.
In short order, Schwarz was told about Aldona Udriené, a Lithuanian septuagenarian who ran Jovaru Alus, a rural brewery in the village of Jovarai in Pakruojis. Udriené was fermenting beer with her grandfather’s yeast strain, a family heirloom that created eccentric aromatics, running the full flavor spectrum from fruity and floral to herbal and peppery—even with a note of walnut oil.
“Would Omega Yeast be interested in partnering with Udriené to sell her strain?” the caller wondered.
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“I ended up in this crazy cultural experience,” Schwarz says of his visit to the Lithuanian Consulate’s Chicago office, where he snacked on a traditional cake shaped like a tree. “I never in a million years thought I’d have coffee with the consulate general of Lithuania—all because of yeast.”
Over the last five years, Schwarz and Omega Yeast’s cofounder, Lance Shaner, have built their Chicago-based business into one of the industry’s most dependable, approachable, and innovative purveyors of liquid yeast.
Brewers can buy Omega’s tried-and-true strains to make, say, a German kölsch or a Belgian witbier, but the company’s calling card is its custom collection of quick-souring bacteria, funky Brettanomyces, and fruity and citrusy Norwegian kveik (pronounced “kwike”). “They’re making it possible for brewers to explore new territory and differentiate themselves by offering new and unconventional strains and blends,” says steadfast client Paul Schneider, the head of brewing operations for Cinderlands Beer in Pittsburgh.
Countless breweries today have built their businesses on the backs of unique hops, deployed to aromatic excess. Doing so was once daring, and brewers were able to deliver distinctive aromas and flavors to drinkers. The rule-breaking template is now a trope, and even the addition of many different grains to a brew kettle isn’t always enough to distinguish so many similar beers from each other. That leaves yeast as the final key to unlock flavorful diversity. Omega was one of the first companies to dive deep into the microbial universe, and it set a high bar by bugging out better than anyone else.
Filling a Market Void
Omega Yeast started with a complaint. In 2013, Schwarz and Shaner were working as Chicago patent attorneys specializing in, respectively, intellectual property and biotech, when a fellow law professional who was then starting a brewery bemoaned the impersonality of sourcing yeast. Additionally, the industry’s two main suppliers, White Labs and Wyeast, were located on the West Coast. (White Labs now has outposts in Boulder, Colorado, and Asheville, North Carolina, among others.) Larger suppliers typically maintain stock in cold storage, and readily ship orders after a credit card swipe. (Wyeast recommends using yeast within two weeks of receipt.) Yet yeast is a living organism, and it’s best to pitch it into beer as soon as possible.
The Midwest had no homegrown yeast suppliers that could deliver yeast fast, fresh, and with a friendly face—a niche Schwarz and Shaner sensed they could fill. Since then, the industry has welcomed upstarts including Portland’s Imperial Yeast, Nashville’s Bootleg Biology, and Denver’s Inland Island.
Shaner knew his greatest advantage was his education. He had homebrewed since his undergraduate days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the food science department distributed samples from its ample yeast bank. He made duplicates of almost every strain and took them to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where he earned his Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics, with a focus on Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast. Schwarz was an entrepreneur at heart, keen to start his own company; he’d handle the business and sales side while Shaner would focus on the science.
By fall 2013 the friends had pooled their funds and built a system for propagating yeast—pure strains are replicated to create the desired quantities for each beer. Schwarz and Shaner were mostly flying blind in an industry that’s often secretive about its methods. “We couldn’t really look to other companies,” Shaner says. “On the yeast side, people aren’t as open as brewers tend to be.”
Shaner’s experience in homebrewing helped him test the viability of the yeasts he was developing, and Chicago-area breweries—including Burnt City and Lake Effect, which were headquartered in the building where Omega Yeast first started out—were early adopters. “We were fortunate enough,” says Shaner, “to have customers give us a shot.”
The yeast industry has long been dominated by a handful of major players; many brewers saw no need to upset the status quo. “People who were in the industry for a long time had their favorites,” Shaner says. Getting brewers to switch required demonstrating a commitment to customer service, quality, and taking the extra step.
One thing that sets Omega apart from most yeast labs is its à la minute sensibility—it sends brewers the freshest yeast possible. “We don’t start propagating yeast,” says Schwarz, “until a brewer makes an order.”
Omega’s yeast also solves another common brewing gripe. “In the homebrew world, we heard people complaining about not having high-enough cell counts,” says Schwarz. Higher cell counts ensure a healthy fermentation; they also mean that Omega’s yeast costs more than that of the competition, a price many are willing to pay. Says Schwarz, “We said, ‘Hey, we’re going to offer 50 percent more cells than what’s out there.’”
In the quest for unique yeast characteristics, many brewers have turned to spontaneous fermentation, crossing their fingers that the natural world would create unusually delicious beer. Omega eliminates the worry involved in taking such a risk by offering offbeat microbes that are guaranteed to create unique aromatics and tastes.
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Formula for Growth
Omega’s yeast has quickly found a following, with customers in all 50 states. “We get a really nice, healthy fermentation,” says Phil Wymore, the owner of Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis. He uses the Lactobacillus bacteria blend and multiple IPA strains, but a peerless product isn’t the only selling point. “Customer service is the differentiator,” he says. “When I first started getting yeast from Omega, I would email Lance all the time to get information on how to get the most from each strain. Lance has never been hard to get ahold of. He’s always been very thorough and responsive to all of our questions.”
Perennial currently sources all of its yeast and souring cultures from Omega, in particular a novel strain of Lactobacillus that can rapidly drop a beer’s pH to the desired level of acidity, functioning well with zero fuss. “We discovered you could pitch at 95 degrees and not do any form of temperature control and still get the souring you want within 24 hours,” Shaner says of the strain, which was derived from a sample brought to Omega by Chicago’s Marz Community Brewing.
The company is continually crossing and blending strains to create additional novel attributes. For example, Saisonstein’s Monster is a genetic hybrid of several saison strains; it combines high attenuation—it eats loads of residual sugars—and yields spicy aromatics that suggest fruit and bubblegum.
In addition to custom mixes of wild yeast, Omega is one of the few American yeast labs to sell Norwegian kveik. The company discovered it by diligently reading a blog chronicling Norway’s farmhouse ales. “Our first thought was, ‘Either they’re making god-awful beer in Norway or these are special strains,’” Shaner recalls. The Norwegian writer Lars Marius Garshol, author of the blog, Larsblog, sourced and sent Omega the oddball cultures, which the company promptly tested.
Kveik was a microbial unicorn: It created intense aromas of tropical fruit, a great complement to modern hops, and functioned well at temperatures near 100 degrees without creating off flavors. This was huge news for homebrewers, who often lack temperature control. “We’ve even heard of homebrewers in Texas putting their carboy [a type of glass fermentation vessel] out in the garage in the summer,” says Schwarz, “and coming out with fantastic IPAs.”
Homebrew shops have taken notice. “[Omega was] the first to have these different strains that we thought our customers would like,” says John LaPolla, co-owner of the Brooklyn homebrew shop Bitter & Esters, which offers a range of Omega yeast. “We carry more and more each time we order.”
Today’s homebrewers are tomorrow’s professionals, and Omega aims to aid customers—roughly 15 percent of whom are amateurs—in every step of their brewing journeys. The company helps brewers sleep well at night while its yeast steadily toils, making the flavorful magic happen.
“At the end of the day, all this is self-serving,” says Schwarz. “We like to drink really good beer. The more we can help breweries, the better the beer we’re all getting to drink.”
And as for that call from the Lithuanian Consulate, it did ultimately lead to a collaboration with Udriené. Omega Yeast released its Jovaru Lithuanian Farmhouse yeast strain last week on September 26, about four months after the initial call. The strain, they say, yields citrusy esters and restrained phenols—and produces “a character of lemon pith, black pepper, and a soft mouthfeel.”
Contributing editor 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 five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer (out September 2019).