Q&A with Omega Yeast Labs Founder and CEO Lance Shaner
Like many of you, part of why I brew beer is to experiment and create new recipes. Sure, we all have our favorites, but even then, changing up a few of the ingredients can yield surprising results.
Yeast is obviously the most crucial. After all, we’d just have sugary wort without it. So when Northern Brewer announced that we would soon be carrying Omega Yeast Labs, and that we’d have their entire ProBrew catalog, I was excited. I found myself creating an ever growing list of strains I want to try.
Yet I still had a lot of questions about Omega and who they are. So after consulting with my fellow brewers, I reached out to Lance Shaner, the Founder and CEO of Omega Yeast Labs, with some of our questions.
Lance very graciously obliged.
The Omega website talks a little bit about your background in research. Would you mind sharing a bit more about that experience and how you moved into the brewing industry?
I have a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. I studied a particular class of molecular chaperones, which are proteins that help other proteins maintain their 3-dimensional conformation under stressful conditions, such as high heat, in our good friend, S. cerevisiae. So for 5 years, I worked with yeast on a daily basis. My advisor was nice enough to let me maintain a library of brewing strains in the lab deep freezer and prop them up whenever I wanted to brew. From there, I took a detour to law school. Then I spent four years as a patent lawyer drafting biotechnology patent applications. It was at the law firm that I made the connections that led me and my business partner, Mark, to start Omega.
What was the inspiration for starting Omega Yeast Labs?
As an avid home brewer of about 16 years and spending five years of my life in an academic yeast lab, I’ve always been passionate about beer and process of brewing beer. Back in 2013, a conversation with a former colleague (over a few beers, naturally), bemoaning the current state of the yeast industry, led me to realize the lack of yeast providers in the Midwest and broader eastern half of the country. Brewers in the Midwest and East Coast need fresh yeast too! Moreover, I was frustrated at the time with inadequate cell counts offered in the homebrew market. Thus, Omega Yeast was founded to simply help brewers brew better beer. So what gets me really excited, to this day, is knowing that our yeast is helping both commercial and home brewers to devote their time and creativity toward pushing the boundaries of their beers rather than dealing with yeast issues.
Where did the name “Omega” come from? Why did you decide on that?
It might sound strange, but the name was largely driven by my desire to have the initials contain an "O" so that a budding yeast cell could be worked into the logo. Mark was listing off potential names, said "Omega", and I said, "Done!"
How much has the lab grown since you first started?
Our growth over the last three years has been quite a ride! When we launched, we were extremely fortunate to have strong support within the Chicago brewing community and since that time, we’ve been lucky to foster relationships with brewers all over the country. Additionally, our team has expanded to include nine employees. We’re most excited to announce that we're expanding our facilities in order to keep up with growing demand.
Can you share what breweries are using your yeast and which strains?
Nice try, Bjorn! As a matter of policy, we never disclose which strains are sold to any particular brewery.
(hey, it was worth a shot…)
With my obvious Scandinavian heritage, I’m curious about the two Norwegian proprietary strains; “HotHead” and “Voss Kveik”. How did you come across them and develop them for your line?
We first became aware of the Norwegian kveik strains via Lars Marius Garshol's blog (Larsblog -- highly recommended reading) where he was writing extensively about the history of Norwegian farmhouse brewing and the strains that they were using to make traditional Norwegian farmhouse beer. The temperatures they were fermenting at were practically unbelievable -- up to, and in some instances exceeding,100F. Our thought was that they were either making terrible beer or these were remarkable strains. Once we had them in our hands, we did split batch fermentations where the only variable was temperature. We couldn't reliably distinguish beers fermented at 95F from beers fermented at 70F!
There’s been a lot of buzz about the “HotHead” yeast, especially the tolerance for higher fermentation temperatures. What else can you tell us about it?
While you could certainly use HotHead to make traditional Norwegian farmhouse ale, we advocate its use in making hoppy American-style ales, with the kicker that you can basically ferment it at whatever temperature you want (between 65F and 100F) and still expect a great result. It has a unique fruitiness that is complementary of modern hop varieties. So if all your temperature-controlled fermentation space is taken up and you still want to brew an IPA, use HotHead and stick it in your closet. Or if you're a beginner home brewer and you don't have good temperature control, use HotHead. When you're starting out with the hobby, your head is probably spinning with all the variables in styles, malt, hops, techniques, etc. HotHead at least removes one variable.
How do you go about creating your proprietary blends, such as Where Da Funk? Do you have specific flavors in mind from the start?
We were first playing with the two Sacch strains in that blend, which result in wonderfully fruity beers. We wanted to have a range of blends that complemented that bright fruitiness with (1) some overripe tropical fruitiness characteristic and very light funk (the 210 blend, courtesy of a B. anomalus isolate), (2) classic Brett funkiness (the 211 blend, courtesy of a classic B. bruxellensis isolate), and (3) amped up overripe tropical fruit with significant funk (the 212 blend, courtesy of a variety of Brett isolates).
You also offer a Hybrid Series, such as the Saisonstein’s Monster? Can you tell us how a hybrid strain is developed?
Generally speaking, some yeast strains can exhibit different "mating types" (similar to gender). Haploid cells of opposite mating types can sense each other and combine to form a diploid cell with genetic material from each parent cell. We don't talk publicly about the methods we use to make our hybrids, unfortunately.
Of your entire line of yeast, which one was the hardest to isolate and bring to the market?
There are a handful of strains that are more difficult to work with due to growth or flocculation characteristics, but that generally hasn't kept us from marketing any particular strain. It definitely informs our decision on whether to recommend certain strains to brewers. For example, I might steer a brewer to a strain different than the one they originally asked for if I can convince them it will give a similar result but with better production environment characteristics, such as flocculation or faster fermentation speed.
Is there a specific reason you chose to offer 150 billion cells per package (50% more than other suppliers)?
We believe that for most strains, 150 billion cells strikes a good balance between affordability for the brewer and ensuring that an adequate amount of yeast is pitched to result in a healthy and vigorous fermentation.
What do you recommend for shelf life of your product, to ensure viability?
We put a 5 month recommended shelf life on our packs. And while making starters is never a bad idea, we highly recommend starters when the yeast packs are three months or older.
Do you still recommend that home brewers prepare a yeast starter for their beer, even with the high cell count at packaging?
If you're making a low to moderate gravity beer and you have a fresh pack, a starter is not necessary. Although my mantra tends to be, a starter is never a bad idea. It allows you to confirm that your yeast is healthy and ensures a fast start to fermentation.
As a homebrewer yourself, which one is your favorite strain? Do you have a favorite beer style?
My favorite strain depends on the style of the beer I'm making. I like British Ale I
as an all-around strain. It's great for dark styles and hoppy beers and is a reliable performer. I like DIPA
for hoppy beers. My favorite style to drink changes from time to time. I've been digging pilsners lately (Pivo Pils from Firestone Walker is my favorite). I like (for lack of a better term) Northeast style IPAs. I really don't care if they're hazy or not (but they can't be murky) -- I like the low bitterness and huge hop aroma and flavor in that "style."
Thank you for your time, Lance.
Be sure to check out all of the Omega Yeast strains, some of them are ProBrew strains, previously unavailable to homebrewers.