Interview with Lance Shaner of Omega Yeast Lab

Interview with Lance Shaner of Omega Yeast Lab By Tim Lange Beer can be made with as little as 4 ingredients including yeast, and the understanding and control of yeast and fermentation variables largely control the outcome and quality of any beer.   Yeast options and labs have grown with the rest of the craft beer industry, which means more brewers have access to a wide variety of fresh, healthy liquid yeasts from their regional suppliers.  At my brewery I worked with Omega Yeast Labs (OYL) to isolate bacteria from grains and test them to develop a new quick souring bacterium that’s been a significant element of our production, and now this bacterium is widely used across the industry today.  The open source nature of the people in craft beer allows cultures like these  to spread quickly and influence new beers.  The Midwest has especially been influenced by the work of Lance Shaner and his team at OYL, and I talked with him about their history and bright future here in Chicago. TIM: What’s the origin story for Omega? LANCE: It comes down to one discussion while I was an attorney. Before I was doing this I was a patent attorney at Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP here in Chicago and one of our colleagues at the firm, Andy, was one of the partners at 1090 brewing. We were at our annual associates Christmas lunch and I was chatting with Andy about his brewery and how that was coming along. They were still in planning and one of the things he mentioned was yeast and ordering from Wyeast with expensive overnight shipping. Yeast is a perishable product so it’s generally shipped next-day air. It clicked that second and I can trace all of this back to that one conversation and I thought this is something that needs to be done around here. No one else was doing it. That day I went home and told my wife I starting a yeast lab. She was skeptical for a while, but I started thinking about it and planning it. This was December 2012. One of my colleagues at the firm, Mark Schwartz ended up being my business partner. He was more entrepreneurial and business savvy than I was, so I was running everything by him at work. One day he stopped by my office and asked if I wanted a business partner. It was daunting to start something like this completely alone so it sounded good to me and we worked together from there on planning and finding a small space that ended up next to a costume warehouse and Lake Effect Brewing. I began doing small scale experiments at home, I’m a microbiologist by training and home brewed for years. We were operational by July 2013, so it came together really fast from initial conception to actually launching.   Lake Effect brewing was in the same building as us, so we had a customer there. 1090 started working with us right away. From there you know brewers are, they start talking to each other, and they did our marketing for us. T: And you were very present on social media doing Milk The Funk posts and commenting on things in front of a huge passionate group of pro and home brewers L: Sure, that came a little later and lead to good news and more notoriety that helped us grow. T: How different were the actual day to day operations and production projections for Omega compared to your business plan? Usually the business plan doesn’t play out as expected. L: Yeah, [laughing] it may sound ridiculous, but we never actually had a full written out business plan! T: You knew it was a pointless exercise? L: Yeah, ugghh, I don’t know.   I was in the right frame of mind at the time. I was actually looking to do something else, for other opportunities when I had that conversation [with Andy] so I was primed to do something else at that point. I loved the people I worked with, but I was getting bored with law work and then this happened. I ran with it. In some respects, we’re still doing things pretty similar to how we started. Without going into details, we’ve certainly tweaked things. Looking at what was out there and what was affordable at the beginning, things ended up working out very well. Our system is very flexible and if we have enough capacity we can turn around a 1bbl pitch into a 240bbl pitch from order to shipping. We could still to this day use more capacity. Now we have big tanks that can help us pool some orders, but it’s all based on the same principles of our original system just on a larger scale. The rate of growth of this industry and the fact that there’s nobody else within hundreds of miles doing what we’re doing, it was in my head that if we can do it right and execute it would just work [laughing]. That might have been wildly naïve, but like I said, I was in the right frame of mind and the right time in my life and career to take the risk. T: So going back before you were a patent attorney, what was your background as a microbiologist and how did these things come together before you started Omega? L: I was a microbiology undergrad from the University of Illinois in Champaign and while I was there they had a home brew club called BUZZ, Boneyard Union of Zymerlogical Zealots or something like that. It’s an official University sanctioned club and I was a member of that when I was 19 or 20. You can buy all the ingredients to make beer even if you aren’t 21. Grains, yeast, and hops aren’t inherently illegal on their own, so I joined and that’s when I was bitten by the home brewing bug. Looking back we did so many stupid things home brewers do; this…

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