One of the things I've been struck by in producing Beer Geeks is just how many really smart people become brewers. Mystic Brewery owner Bryan Greenhagen, PhD did post-doctoral research at MIT - where his wife and fellow brewing enthusiast, Emily got her biology degree. Since then, Bryan has done groundbreaking scientific research as a brewer in finding, cultivating, and brewing with native yeast from fruit.
Traditionally, breweries in this country have used strains of yeast first propagated in Europe. (Yeast is essential in brewing because it turns sugar into alcohol and can create a variety of flavors). And while the craft beer revolution has had American brewers thinking way outside the glass in the selection and use of grains, hops, and other flavorings, Bryan says yeast has been an underdeveloped resource. So he’s developing it.
He says he was inspired by the world of brewing that he and his wife explored on their honeymoon in Belgium, where brewers have long used wild yeast and various microbes to create beers with significant flavors - many of them funky and/or sour. Expanding on that tradition, Bryan began culturing his own strains of yeast from local fruit such as plums and blueberries (Mystic is in Chelsea, Massachusetts) - and he says a few other brewers have begun following suit.
Bryan says what he is doing with beer is similar to the concept of terroir in winemaking - maximizing the unique flavor possibilities of a specific locale. To that extent, he says, it’s similar to the local ingredients movement in food. And to get it just right, he says, requires more than science alone. In the old argument, “Is brewing an art or a science?” Bryan comes down firmly on both sides of the fence. He gets great satisfaction as a scientist from his work with yeast. But it’s his creativity that harnesses that science - visualizing the possibilities of what new strains of yeast can bring to the flavor of his beers, then bringing those beers to life.
And he is being acknowledged for it. Vinland Two, the beer we brewed during our visit to Mystic with yeast from blueberries, recently won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. With a clear wink over the phone, Bryan says this makes up for the creative disappointment he felt a few years back - when he came to the realization that his punk rock band was never going to make it big in the music biz.
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