Meet BrewCon 2019 speaker and yeast expert Dr Jim Withee

This year’s BrewCon features some of the brewing industry’s top operational and scientific experts, including Dr. Jim Withee, Stanford PhD graduate and founder of California’s Giga Yeast.

Founded in 2011, GigaYeast Inc fulfilled Dr Withee’s dream of combining his passion for science and beer, having previously worked at the Saccharomyces Genome Database, annotating the first complete genomic sequence of brewer’s yeast.

He has nearly a decade of experience educating brewers about the complexities of yeast, and at BrewCon 2019 he will be discussing and providing analytical solutions to the problem of brewery contamination.

Dr Withee spoke to Brews News in the run up to BrewCon about major issues in the industry and what to expect from his presentation.

“An emerging trend which has been happening over the last 10 to 15 years is brewers using more and different strains of yeast in a single brewery. It’s an important change because managing multiple strains creates new challenges to yeast management,” he said.

“It’s not something that’s brand new, it’s been building in the US like it has in Australia. The competition to keep your beer different keeps driving innovation and prompting people to innovate with new and different styles.”

Dr Withee said the emergence of trends like hazy IPAs, sour beers and a desire to brew multiple traditional styles in the same brewery have led to greater demand for managing several different yeast strains in the brewery, and the movement is not likely to peter out anytime soon.

“This innovation will continue. If you use the past as the best predictor of the future, in the US and other countries there’s always been a dominant style balanced with the need to create many different minor styles to enhance the brand.

“Here [in the US] it’s always been an IPA, it might be a different kind of IPA with a different grain build, but it’s still what everyone’s drinking. But it remains critical for a brewery to set itself apart with unique beers.”

He said the growing industry was partly to blame for the drive towards ever higher levels of innovation.

“Another trend is the desire to create lower ABV, sessionable beers. These beers have a lot of upsides because the profit margin is larger than high ABV beers and customers can drink more of them in a single sitting. As a result, now more craft brewers are starting to look at lagers.

“Lagers are actually really difficult even for very good brewers. Any difference from batch to batch is really noticeable, whereas inconsistencies are drowned out with alcohol content and massive hop additions in beers like IPAs.”

Another way of adding value to your beer is to employ tactics more often used in the wine or whiskey industries.

“Instead of competing with a load of IPAs on the shelves, we’re starting to see some breweries utilise barrel aging programs to build their brand, it’s become their bread and butter.

“I think barrel programs are a really good way to add value to your beer. People are wanting to sell into a niche market to avoid competition and sell their product at a premium price.”

One of the big issues is keeping on top of innovation whilst also keeping costs down, Dr Withee explained, and to help with this, Giga Yeast has been focusing on educating clients about repitching yeast.

“We’re spending a lot of time teaching brewers to repitch yeast, to reuse it.

“Repitching is largely a monetary thing, it’s a product meant to be used multiple times but it can get costly if you only use it once. Using good yeast management to re-pitch more than 10x can reduce the cost of liquid yeast to less than the cost of water in a brew.”

Another major issue brewers need to keep on top of is re-fermentation, which has been on the news agenda recently following the revelations about the alcohol content of fermented soft drinks, and several recalls in previous months due to higher alcohol content and the danger of further carbonisation in-can.

“Unintended re-fermentation is usually the result of one or two things; packaging prematurely or contamination with hyper attenuators.

“Although several beer spoilers can cause hyper attenuation, Saccharomyces Diastaticus has received the most attention lately.

“Diastaticus is a strain of Saccharomyces with as little as one additional gene that allows it to express an enzyme capable of breaking down starch into fermentable sugars.

“We spend a lot of time educating customers that while [the gene] can be insidious, it doesn’t create off flavors, you don’t know it’s even there until your cans start exploding.

“It’s a huge issue, and it’s become more confounded by the fact that in the sequencing of brewing strains, popular strains have been found to carry one of these genes [which break down starch into fermentable sugars leading to unintended re-fermentation]. It’s interesting, though I believe in the vast majority of cases, it’s non-functional.”

Giga Yeast at BrewCon 2019

Dr Withee will be at BrewCon 2019 talking about microbe management, educating brewers about where to look for contamination, cheapest ways to locate and eliminate and how to store, handle and repitch yeast.

“So many people need help with troubleshooting and with contamination. We’ve developed processes to streamline the system and to pinpoint and focus on critical control points in the brewing operation,” he explained.

“We look at sampling a handful of places and narrow in on the problem area. It’s a deductive way instead of panicking and sampling everything,” he said.

The IBA 2019 BrewCon runs from Wednesday 4 September to Thursday 5 September concurrent with the Trade Expo, which runs until Friday 6 September.

The Indies Beer Awards Ceremony will be held on Thursday 5 September. The IBA have also launched their event portal app – download now with the code BrewCon19.

Find out more about the speakers and events at BrewCon 2019.

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