The Biggest New Name in Chicago Brewing Is a … Yeast Company?
Omega Yeast helps brewers big and small barrel up the best they can
Your standard-issue beer nut may argue till closing time over who makes the best IPA or conduct a one-man campaign for Hefeweizens, but chances are he won’t be geeking out about yeast. But hops, malt and water alone don’t a beer make, and these microscopic critters cannot be overlooked. Luckily, Chicago brewers don’t have to look far to find the freshest fungi around, thanks to Omega Yeast.
The company was founded in 2013 by Mark Schwarz and Lance Shaner, patent attorneys jonesing for something new. At the time, craft brewing was really taking off in the city, and with Shaner packing a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics, the two quickly spotted their niche. “There were so many craft breweries opening, it was like the Gold Rush and we were the ones selling the pickaxes,” says Schwarz.
While the big boys — like Anheuser-Busch — often grow their own yeast in-house, many smaller players have longed sourced theirs from White Labs in San Diego or Wyeast out of Portland, Oregon. “We were a new breed,” suggests Schwarz. “The old guard focused on making very large batches and then sold that off as the orders came in. So yeast could be sitting in their cooler for a couple of months before it was sold.”
Not surprisingly, fresher is always better, as yeast is a perishable product and gradually loses its viability over time. “This can cause your fermentation to be slow to take off, or allow other organisms opportunities that can result in off flavors in your product,” explains Shaner. “We don’t start growing the yeast until the customer orders. The advantage to that is that they know it is going to take off quickly, because it was made freshly just for them. I think people getting much more consistent experience from us which is why we have to grow as fast as we have.”
Omega — which has customers across the U.S. and abroad — began life in the corner of a Portage Park costume shop, but recently debuted a new facility next to is current digs on W. Pensacola Avenue. Designed by Valerio Dewalt Train, the space is tailor-made for efficiency and innovation. “The building is arranged according to our process, so everything has its place,” says Schwarz. “And it allows us to have a dedicated research and development lab. In the last building, R&D essentially shared space with the production lab, and that really didn’t allow us to put to focus on research the way we wanted. Having a dedicated lab really allows us to push the envelope.”
While there are two primary yeasts — one for ales and another for lagers — there are multiple variations. “Within those categories, there are loads and loads of strains, different mutations that present different characteristics,” explains Shaner. “We were the first ones to offer Norwegian heirloom strains and Lithuanian heirloom strains. So, we definitely do very niche things, and that niche is growing bigger.” In addition to the 100 strains in its catalogue, Omega stores several hundred more that they’ve made and tested over the years.
Between offering pre-made product for the home brewer (available at The Pursuit Supply, Gnome Brew and Brew & Grow) and working directly with professional craft breweries, Schwarz and Shaner have really become players on the city’s beer scene. And they take special satisfaction in their role in helping folks up their game. “Brewers can be a lot like chefs,” suggests Schwarz. “How many chefs really know the chemistry of their cooking? The same with brewers. That’s where we come in as a partner. A brewery can reach out to us and say and tell us what they are trying to achieve and we can point them to the yeast that will help them do that.”
“All of us — unless we’ve been at this a long time — are always learning,” says Trevor Rose-Hamblin, Head Brewer and Co-Founder of Old Irving Brewing Co. “A yeast can change the dynamic of a beer pretty quickly. I call these guys probably two or three times a month, and they always point me in the right direction.”
“We have a lot of educational information on our website, we talk to home growers all the time to teach them stuff. We publish research,” says Schwarz. “We’re all about advancing brewing and make people better brewers.”
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