This Strange Yeast Could Revolutionize Beer As We Know It

June 25, 2019

By Michael Clearwater, June 25, 2019

First, let’s get this out of the way: Norwegian farmhouse ale is not going to displace hazy IPA as the next big thing in American beer. A typical Norwegian farmhouse ale, if such an ancient and heterogeneous designation can be reduced to “typical,” would likely take the form of a lightly carbonated, slightly sweet, raw ale made from oats, barley, and juniper. The likelihood of this beer resembling anything recognizable in American craft brewing is near zero, yet kveik (pronounced “kah-wike”), the beautifully bizarre and fascinating yeast at the heart of Norwegian farmhouse ale, may be on its way to a beer near you. 

In fact, kveik, which refers to a yeast and not a style, may have already found its way into your beer fridge. Lance Shaner of Omega Yeast Labs explains that “seemingly everyone is dabbling in kveik, from the smallest brewery you can imagine to large regional and national breweries. Burnt City Brewing in Chicago uses it frequently. Platform Brewing in Cleveland. Cinderlands Brewing in Pittsburgh. It’s definitely getting a lot of use on the home brew side as well.” Alvarado Street Brewery in Salinas and the recently defunct Stone Berlin have also dabbled in kveik. 

Recent interest in Scandinavian and Baltic farmhouse ale—perhaps piqued by Norwegian Lars Marius Garshol’s chronicle of his own farmhouse beer obsession— as stirred up American demand for kveik among both professional and home brewers. Kveik, which is simply the western Norwegian slang word for yeast, designates a family of unusually hearty and high-heat-tolerant yeast strains capable of producing clean beers at ridiculously high fermentation temperatures with little to none of funky, medicinal aromas or hot and harsh alcohols that other ale yeasts would produce in this temperature range.

One benefit of fermenting beers at these temperatures is speed. The ability to turn around a beer from grain to glass in days rather than weeks is potentially game-changing for smaller breweries. “Say we’re in a pinch, or we need to get a beer on the board,” explains Mack Sant, brewer at Flatland Brewing Co. in Elk Grove, California. “That beer is done and in kegs in a week and it’s fine. Kveik means we get to brew more—we get to try something else. We’re very experimental and if a tank is open in a week— compared to two to three weeks—well, that means we’re just brewing more and we’re learning more. There’s so many other ideas we can play with, with this yeast.” 

Brew day at Flatland. Photo courtesy of Flatland Brewing Co.

Flatland has been using Omega Yeast Labs’ “Hornindal Kveik” for its kveik-fermented beers, one of three kveik strains offered by Omega. Omega was the first commercial yeast lab in the United States to begin propagating and selling kveik. Shaner, who describes his kveik discovery process by citing Garshol’s work publicizing the yeast, claims “our initial thoughts were that these were either incredible strains or the Norwegians were making awful beer. Thankfully it ended up being the former. If the claims of their attributes were true, then it seemed clear that brewers would be keenly interested because it would mean faster turnaround times. If equipment was your bottleneck, a simple change of yeast strain could relieve that bottleneck. And importantly, kveik can be used to make all of the most popular styles of beer, including hazy IPA.” 

Flatland has found that kveik changed the way it approaches its own brewery space, and the yeast has emboldened Sant and Flatland owner Andrew Mohsenzadegan to explore what kveik can and can’t do. On the day I visited the brewery, Flatland had two kveik-fermented beers on tap, and a third Berliner Weisse-esque offering on the way. They’ve used the yeast to create a hazy pale ale called Dank Sinatra, as well as downright bizarre but alluring double IPA collaboration with Drake’s called Newer World. In Dank Sinatra, which was fermented between 94 and 98 degrees Fahrenheit (compared to a standard range of 68 to 72 degrees for ales) the juicy, fruity character of the kveik complements the hazy IPA style perfectly. Sant admits that Flatland might move this beer faster if it were advertised it as a hazy IPA rather than a kveik-fermented beer. Nobody would be the wiser. 

If you see kveik advertised on a beer board soon, don’t be afraid to pronounce it or to discover what this fascinating yeast can contribute to your glass.”

On the other hand, Newer World pushes the boundaries of what an IPA can be. Sant tells me that the kveik drove the development process for this raw beer, which is made with riesling and muscat grape must. Flatland took advantage of the fast fermentation time of the yeast and produced this beer quickly, on a deadline, for Sacramento Beer Week. The raw element of this beer—the wort isn’t boiled—is a nod to the traditional Norwegian farmhouse ales, and the riesling and muscat are there to complement the yeast’s own fruity characteristics, as the beer offers a smooth and predictably vinous character that goes hand-in-hand with its sweet orange aroma. The beer doesn’t showcase hops in the way you might expect an IPA to—the tropical Citra aroma in the beer is muted, as is the bitterness—yet the beer is a beguiling tribute to the potential that kveik presents to brewers. Mohsenzadegan admits to me that they don’t yet understand how this yeast works with hops, but the possibilities seem well worth exploring. 

When it comes to other applications of kveik, Shaner points out that the yeast can be used in “any way you would use an English ale strain. In other words, IPA, hazy IPA, porters, stouts, etc.” He also highlights “the ease and speed with which high-ABV barleywines and imperial stouts can be turned around with none of the ‘hot’ and harsh flavors you’d get by using conventional strains under the same conditions.”

Flatland’s ambition with Newer World, and the tasty practicality showcased by Dank Sinatra, speak to the possibilities kveik offers brewers large and small to experiment with and reimagine how they approach fermentation. While the yeast offers novel ways of making traditional styles, it also provides a new canvas for experimentation. Sant tells me that he wants to make a traditional Norwegian farmhouse ale, even if there isn’t going to be much of a market for it. But he also tells me he’s interesting in seeing how kveik will play in mixed-fermentation, perhaps with Brettanomyces. Newer World ultimately seems like an ironically named beer, knitting together emergent and evolving styles of American beer with centuries of nearly forgotten Old World tradition. If you see kveik advertised on a beer board soon, don’t be afraid to pronounce it or to discover what this fascinating yeast can contribute to your glass. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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