Interview with Lance Shaner of Omega Yeast Lab

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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 isn’t going fast enough, let’s heat it up! I kept home brewing for years and ended up moving to Houston to get a PHD in microbiology molecular genetics from the University of Texas and ended up in the yeast lab there not studying anything related to beer and brewing, but the same organism-more of a basic science type thing. Professors go department to department doing seminars and I met a woman from U of T studying Anthrax at the time while I was applying to grad schools. My first thought was studying anthrax would be neat, but the first years of grad school are rotations in labs, and there were already a couple students working with her the first semester, so I wanted to try working with someone else and maybe get back to her work later. I went to a fairly new professor that had been there for a couple years studying yeast and obviously had an interest in that already. I ended up really loving working with yeast genetically. They’re very malleable when it comes to their genetics and you can do almost whatever you want to them with tons of tools available since it’s been used as a genetic model system for years.   It allowed me to keep my brewing strains frozen and grow them up whenever I wanted them. Towards the end of grad school I figured I didn’t want to stick with bench work. It’s essentially begging for money and it can be really hard to get a position. I wanted to leverage what I had done and learned so far, so I went to law school thinking about doing patent prosecution work. To do patent prosecution you have to have a technical degree in addition to the law degree to practice in front of the patent office. You’re a bridge between the inventor and the legal office. You can translate the invention into legalese.

T: Can you tell us how all of this experience lead you to mate two saison strains soon after you opened?

L: We used traditional mating techniques just to avoid it being GMO – if you start plugging in other genes then you’ve got a whole other regulatory scheme to get over.   We mated the French Saison and the Dupont strains. The French is a pretty reliable strain that tastes fine, but it’s not the most exciting profile. Dupont has a more iconic Saison flavor, but it’s a very finicky strain to work with. We were hoping to get more of the Dupont flavor without the challenging fermentation. The mating process creates hundreds of children, so we started brewing with them and found ones that almost universally had good kinetics and behaved like French with the Dupont flavors we wanted.

T: That seemed like something that was very unique and new to the industry. Is that true?

L: I don’t think anyone has released anything like this, but we make no claims to creating the ability to hybridize yeast cells. It’s harder to mate domesticated brewery strains than it is wild cells. Some of them just won’t do it. I think the saison strains may be closer to wild because they’re a little more amenable to these techniques. There very well may be unreleased things like this in freezers somewhere?

T: Getting more into the genetics of some of these yeast and bacteria we use to brew, there was the discovery recently that what brewers were purchasing as brett trois wasn’t actually brett, but rather a saccharomyces strain very close to brett. Is genetics going to play more of a role in understanding our brewing yeasts and bacteria and is that something you plan to peruse with your new facility and lab space?

L: Yeah, we have long term plans to get into more R&D with these genes and even have people in mind that we want to head these sorts of things, but this is more of a 2 or 3 year out goal right now. We’re just trying to get through the day and keep up right now. So I’ll end up back at the bench some day? White Labs publishing the genomes of all the brewing yeasts is a huge amount of data to sift through and manipulate.

T: What’s new and exciting for your customers lately?

L: We’re really high on these Norwegian strains right now that a lot of people are flocking to. They’re clean fermenting yeast strains that have a high heat tolerance with fruity flavors and aromas that suits what brewers are doing these days. We’ve got a couple of those that are available to pro brewers now, and we just released Hornindal Kveik to home brewers. This fits in with our existing Norwegian strains, but Hornindal is even fruitier. We made a Chinook IPA with this, which on it’s own shouldn’t be very exciting, but it tastes like there’s a lot more going on that just Chinook. This is how we can help brewers limit hop requirements and make beers taste more expensive than they are.

T: And fill in some hop flavors for brewers that may not have access to all the sought after hop varieties.

L: Yeah! And where we’re sitting right now will be close to the bar of a yeast focused taproom.

T: Exciting! I’ve never visited the taproom at White Labs and I know that can be an incredibly valuable experience for brewers and beer enthusiasts.

L: Phase 1 was getting production online here, and phase 2 will be demolishing the front of this building and turning it into the taproom where we can show off beers that are split up and the same wort is fermented with different yeast strains for our customers and the public to try. We’ve heard this neighborhood has improved a lot over the last 20 years and we want to keep that going. With Lake Effect and OIB nearby we want to help make this more of a brewing destination with this new facility and taproom.

T: We can’t wait to have some beers here with you soon. Cheers!

 

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