“We make a whole lot of really bad beer,” Richard Preiss says soon after I arrive at Escarpment Labs in Guelph, Ontario. After a traffic-filled hour-long drive from my home in Toronto, I’m a little groggy, but the saison blended with a touch of riesling that he just handed me is quite good.
Preiss isn’t being self-deprecating about his beers, he’s simply explaining the process that he and his partners at Escarpment Labs use to cultivate high-quality yeast for other brewers. “It looks a lot like a brewery,” Preiss continues, describing the equipment found in this industrial space in a small Southwestern Ontario city. “That being said, everything about the process is tailored for getting high-quality yeast instead of high-quality beer. It’s sort of the opposite process of most breweries, where they have good beer but dead yeast.”
Escarpment’s roots go back to 2013, when three microbiologists—Preiss, Angus Ross, and Nate Ferguson—bonded over their love of beer. Initially, they just wanted to trade yeast they cultivated from the dregs of their favorite bottles for more beer, but three years ago they decided to make their side-pursuit a business. Before their opening, craft breweries in Ontario mostly resorted to buying yeast from industry heavyweights like California’s White Labs and Oregon’s Wyeast, but this local upstart has largely taken over as the supplier of choice for the majority of local brewers. By doing so, Escarpment helped spur enormous growth in the market—the number of craft breweries in Ontario has grown from about 50 in 2012, to well over 250 today—increased the quality of brews across the province, and even influenced the types of beers getting made.
To those of us who aren’t microbiologists or professional brewers, yeast can seem boring. “People's eyes tend to glaze over when you start talking about yeast,” my editor even warned as we set out to work on this piece. But yeast is undoubtedly one of the most important elements in brewing. “It’s the secret sauce,” says Matthew Park, co-owner and brewery director of Toronto’s Burdock Brewery. “We do a lot of side-by-side trials where we’ll ferment the same beer with different yeast strains and they can just be completely night and day—like you wouldn’t believe they’re the same base ingredients and just the yeast was different.”
Qualifying those differences is where things get confusing. For the most part, Escarpment, White Labs, Wyeast, and other yeast libraries all offer the same yeast strains. “The assumption is that all of this stuff is proprietary, but in most cases it’s not,” Preiss explains. “No one owns these things because they’re technically naturally occurring organisms. No one owns Roma tomatoes, so it’s kind of the same situation. But my Roma tomatoes might be better than yours.”
Escarpment sets itself apart through communication, research and development, and, for the local market, freshness. “Having fresh yeast in the province increases the quality of the beer. Having pitches of yeast that traveled across the border, maybe got held up in customs, who knows if they were refrigerated on the way, you’re gonna get a lower quality,” Park says. “Pale ales, for example, are really showcases of American hops and often they get muddled with yeast off-flavors. Having fresh yeast more easily available, breweries buy fresh pitches more regularly. I feel like the quality of pale ales in Ontario has really gone up in the past few years.”
Park says it’s also beneficial to have a partner like the Escarpment team, who are not only close in terms of geography, but are also willing to be as hands-on as brewers want in the actual brewing process. “If we have questions about what can we do to tweak the fermentation profile to get some different flavors, they’re open to having those conversations,” Park says. “Just having a distributor in California, there’s none of that collaborative spirit.”
That relationship with Burdock is not out of the ordinary for Escarpment. “We’re talking to people all the time about their products. We’re often a sounding board for new ideas and able to steer people in what we hope is the right direction,” Preiss says. Escarpment advises on a wide array of technical issues, such as optimal brewing temperatures, the amount of yeast to pitch, maintaining and reusing yeast (even at the expense of new orders), and quality control testing. They even sometimes end up creating new yeast blends tailored to a brewer’s specific needs—say, for a fast-fermenting yeast that brings strong clove flavors but minimal banana notes and that settles to leave a clear finished product.
Through these conversations, as well as formal collaborations with local breweries including Stone City Ales, Great Lakes Brewery, and Block Three Brewing, the yeast supplier markedly impacts many of the top breweries in Ontario. Outsiders might expect a cold climate to be a haven for heavier beers like porters and stouts, but Ontario is somewhat surprisingly overflowing with lighter, yet funky offerings such as sours, brett-forward ales, and beer-wine hybrids—in large part due to Escarpment’s influence.
From the beginning, the upstart yeast lab focused on cultivating strains that worked well for these types of fermentation-forward beers. “Their saison-brett blend is amazing and they really popularized that in Ontario,” says Park, who uses a saison base for a large proportion of the beers at Burdock. “Before that blend got out there, there wasn’t a ton of good saison being made. They definitely have an impact on what is being brewed in Ontario just by having these blends readily available.”
“In that sense, I think we do have a lot of influence on what products get made and how they get made,” Preiss admits with some reluctance. “I hope we had some influence on the popularity and quality of beers like saison at certain breweries in Ontario. Kettle sours as well. We were doing talks back in 2015 about how to kettle sour and there wasn’t much information out there online.”
Early on, Escarpment also focused on capturing unique wild yeasts. So far, two blends have been commercialized—in this case providing something completely different than what White Labs or anyone else has on offer. The first, dubbed Wild Thing, comes from a culture of naturally occurring yeast found on local apples and was one of the first projects the lab ever undertook. The second, Ontario Farmhouse, is actually a blend of yeast from Ontario strawberries and Brettanomyces pulled from Ontario wine barrels.
Brewers have experimented with Escarpment’s wild yeasts for one-off special brews, but so far have largely shied away due to their unpredictability. “They do have unique flavors—strong apple, citrus or bubblegum notes. Usually, it’s pretty extreme, whether that’s good or not.” Preiss says. By contrast, he explains, “Domesticated yeasts are faster fermenting, they have cleaner flavors, they settle out instead of staying in suspension, and they’re usually more alcohol tolerant.” The homebrew market, though, is embracing wild yeasts with open arms.
Lately, Preiss and the Escarpment team are consumed with kveik—traditional yeasts from Western Norway that have been passed down for generations, and remain genetically distinct from other brewing yeasts. According to Park, Preiss is one of the leading researchers in the field of kveik, and sharing research like Preiss’s kveik deep-dives is a huge focus for Escarpment. The company blog is now internationally renowned as a hub for new fermentation knowledge. “That’s a big part of what we do beyond just being a local supplier,” Preiss says. “We try to be a world-class vector for education in beer.”
This year, that research proved fruitful as local brewers started pitching kveik. “They’re amazing yeasts—you can have drinkable beer in like three days. It’s insane,” Park says. “We just started making easy-drinking, crispy pale ales with it and I really like it. He’s definitely responsible for that being available and breweries using it in Ontario.”
One of the region’s most celebrated craft brewers, Luke Pestl of Bellwoods Brewery, has also been experimenting with kveik following Richard’s suggestion. Bellwoods is also rolling out a line of pilsners with a rotating selection of all Escarpment’s lager yeasts and naming them after the strains—such as the current release Isar—both to demonstrate the differences yeast can make in the final product and to help promote their local partner. “It’s nice to put Ontario on the map a little more,” Pestl says. “We’re fairly well known on the American craft brewing scene and to be able to promote a Canadian yeast producer is great. More than anything, it’s just nice to work with friends.”
Main photo by Richard Preiss