When Cal Poly professor and renowned microbiologist Raul Cano sought to revive a prehistoric strain of yeast that lay dormant in a fossilized bee’s stomach for 25 to 45 million years, his intent wasn’t to create a stir in the beer world. Yet, 15 years later, that same yeast has yielded a fruity, copper-colored Jurassic beer that is the ultimate cross-over between microbiology and microbrew.
Cano will tell the story of this Jurassic strain of yeast during Cal Poly’s Science Cafe discussion in the library today at 3:30 p.m. Cano is a professor of biological sciences, founder of a scientific corporation that extracts useful biomatter from amber, and director of Cal Poly’s Environmental Biotechnology Institute.
A microbiologist founding a beer company isn’t as unlikely a scenario as people might think, according to Jon Moule, brewmaster and cofounder of the Creekside Brewing Co. in downtown San Luis Obispo. Moule, a Cal Poly biological sciences alumnus, said the two sciences overlap.
Lewis “Chip” Lambert, microbiologist and Cano’s partner at Fossil Fuels Brewing Co., agrees. In fact, according to Lambert, many breweries actually employ microbiologists.
“The study of microbiology is part of the science of brewing. Anything that isn’t visible by the naked eye is a microbe,” Lambert said, adding that yeast, which is comprised of single-celled organisms, is actually a microbic fungi.
In fact Lambert, who was a pre-clinical research director at a Bay Area biotech company, was one of the scientists who helped confirm the validity of Cano’s findings despite scientific skepticism.
“The concept of culturing or renovating something that’s 45 million years old is very difficult for scientists, for most people, to accept as possible,” Lambert said. “That’s a long time. It makes Rip Van Winkle look like a little kid. So to prove that, and to convince people that it’s not a contaminate, is very, very difficult.”
Like scientists, brewers can be a skeptical lot. Especially when it comes to dealing with one of their most crucial and volatile ingredients. Like a microcosm of world history, brewing deals with indigenous yeast strains and conquering foreign ones — or in this case, a possibly virulent Jurassic one.
Cal Poly Brew Crew Club president Christian Toran described yeast as something that likes to survive.
“It’s gonna try to get anywhere it can grow,” Toran said.
Not only did Cano discover an ancient yeast, he discovered what could potentially be a brewmaster’s worst nightmare. Moule said once you get a strain in your system, if something goes wrong, you may never be able to get rid of it.
“Especially something as crazy as a Jurassic yeast,” he said.
It turns out, the prehistoric yeast did behave in a strange way. In 2006, Lambert convinced a Northern California pub owner and brewer, Peter Hackett, to try a batch with the 45 million-year-old strain. Hackett, an inventive microbrewer and owner of Guernville’s Stumptown Brewery, had always been a risk-taker in the brewing world.
“He’s the kinda guy who thought it would be fun to try,” Lambert said.
Hackett used the same ingredients and process that he had in his popular “Rat Bastard” pale ale. The ancient yeast acted differently from the start.
As brewing has evolved there have been strains of yeast that seem to work with each style. The type of yeast used in ales usually floats, suspended on top. Slow-fermented lagers utilize a strain that rests at the bottom of the tank during the fermentation period.
Cano’s yeast did both, according to Hackett.
“It did this thing where it would kind of prematurely fall out of suspension, but continue to ferment from the bottom of the tank,” he said.
As Hackett worked with the strain, he found that a long, cold fermentation produced a beer that was not only light and crisp, but fruity, gingery and with a lingering taste of cloves distinctive of the prehistoric yeast.
“We brewed a pale ale and the flavors that came through were a little bit of clove and pineapple,” he said. “If you taste a Bud Light, at the very end you can taste the yeast. You can’t here. But the distinctive clove or pineapple comes through.”
Despite its strange behavior, the yeast produced a beer tasty enough to make it to the 2008 World Beer Cup, which featured 644 breweries in 58 countries around the world.
Central Coast Brewing Co. (CCB) head brewer Aaron Swink described the brewing industry as a race to find the next big thing, whether that’s something new, or something so old it might as well be new. His brewery is known for its original recipes and variety of both traditional and specialty beers.
“I mean, brewing is thousands of years old as an industry,” said Swink, who has worked at CCB for four years. “A lot of what’s going on, for the most part, is people finding styles that aren’t really popular yet in the United States.”
If finding something so ancient that it seems new again is a way to gain attention, Cano’s Jurassic beer definitely fits the bill.