Beer Boffins: Microbial Magic

Lance Shaner, owner and founder of Omega Yeast Labs


Chicago’s Omega Yeast first caught our attention a couple of years ago, as the supplier of an unfamiliar yeast for one of Vault City’s wonderful brews. The characteristics it produced were quite unlike anything we’d tasted before, so we went digging. It turns out this relatively new outfit has been shaking up the commercial and homebrew yeast markets for several years now, with its brewing-led approach, emphasis on freshness and cutting-edge research and development programme. We caught up with founder Lance Shaner to find out how his sometimes circuitous career path led to one of the most exciting businesses in the craft beer world.

Lance’s story has plenty of parallels with the classic craft brewer tale: in short, went to university with something else in mind, got tangled up in homebrewing, and succumbed to the romance and glamour of scrubbing stainless steel 10 hours a day. In Lance’s case, that first career attempt was a year in undergrad pre med, from which he quickly “disavowed” himself and made the switch to microbiology. Quite unconnected to this, he also bumped into the University of Illinois homebrew club during quad day, and immediately saw the benefits.

“There were some really great brewers in there, who kind of opened my eyes to the fact that you could make world class beer at home,” he says.

“And, of course, you know, as a microbiology undergrad, it was great getting some hands-on experience with microbes.”

The club also meant Lance started hanging out a lot with the grad students, and going along when they had invited speakers (though he now claims the free refreshments at such events were his main motivation).

“One night, right around the time I was applying to graduate schools, I ended up talking to one of the visiting professors from the University of Texas, who encouraged me to take a look at her school. They were doing some interesting things, and she specifically was actually working on anthrax, which was newsworthy at the time. So I ended up going to graduate school at University of Texas, hoping I’d end up in this anthrax lab. All my classmates obviously thought the same thing, so opted to do their first rotation in her lab; I didn’t want to be in that big crowd though, so decided to head to the yeast lab first, figuring it could help with my home brewing.”

I just loved working with yeast in that capacity, because they’re just very genetically malleable

Like the plot of a deeply nerdy movie, Lance was obviously hooked, taken under the wing of a relatively new professor and inducted into the hidden wonders of our favourite eukaryotic microorganism. 

Lance says: “I found I just loved working with yeast in that capacity, because they’re just very genetically malleable. You can change them so easily, and answer a lot of neat scientific questions. So I joined that lab and did my whole thesis project there, which gave me five years of hands-on experience manipulating yeast.”

No great love story is complete without a bit of second act tension though, and once Lance had completed his PhD, he turned his back on destiny and went… to law school. There was method to this apparent madness though; with his strong scientific background and an existing interest in law, Lance had a great path to becoming a successful biotech patent attorney. It’s a move that took him from Texas, back up to Illinois, and his first job in law.

“It was about four years into doing that,” he recalls. “I started to get a little disillusioned with being a lawyer, and I had a chance conversation with one of my colleagues who was starting a brewery with a couple of friends in the Chicago area. We just talked about where they were going to be getting their yeast from, how it was going to be overnighted from the west coast.

“I can pin it down to that one conversation that sparked the idea to start a yeast lab. I was in the right frame of mind at the time, I was looking to do something different. So I ended up having a conversation with one of my other colleagues at the firm, Mark Schwartz, who became my business partner, just mulling whether we thought it would work. And then, a few days later, he asked if I wanted to give it a shot.”

Right from the outset, Lance knew he wanted Omega to do things differently, and his combination of advanced modern microbiology and experience as a craft brewer have clearly determined his innovative approach.

On a very basic level, Omega goes to pretty extreme lengths to get its yeasts to customers at its most active; the peak of its microbiotic health. That means it’s always in liquid form, and is delivered to order, never off-the-shelf, and only propagated when the customer has an actual need.

“If you’re doing liquid yeast, the shelf life is not spectacular; from the day or your yeast is done growing, it’s starting to die,” says Lance. “Dried yeast has a shelf life of two or three years, but they’re limited in the number of strains, because not all of them can be dried. And then most liquid yeast manufacturers will make a large batch and and hope they sell it quickly. The problem is, if you’re an unlucky customer and end up with a three-month old pitch, your fermentation will have a long lag time. So yeah, our view is, to get the best results we grow it up when it’s ordered, just because you’re going to have more consistent quality. You can’t get it tomorrow from us. But we still turn around any strain in any quantity within a week.”

We wanted to find new strains and create new strains. When we first started, there was nobody doing hybrids of yeast

Omega has always pitched itself as a yeast lab for craft brewers specifically, and Lance’s drive to always be on the lookout for the next new thing is a reflection of this. Where traditional breweries may prize clean fermentation or high alcoholic yield, Omega’s customers might instead want lactobacillus with a wide temperature range, to facilitate their experiments, or yeasts that create brand new characteristics through aggressive biotransformation.

“We wanted to find new strains and create new strains. When we first started, there was nobody doing hybrids of yeast, which seemed mad. It’s something we’d do to answer whatever scientific question we were tackling in graduate school, we’d hybridise the yeast; take two strains with different traits, lace them and look for the ones that have the characteristics we want. And then, more recently, we’ve been getting into purposeful modification using CRISPR [an advanced and accessible gene editing platform],” says Lance.

“Hop character has been in the spotlight for so long, but you do see that changing, as more brewers start to put their yeast at the centre of their marketing. Just look at Kveik. And that’s only going to increase with the new strains that are coming to market. We’re going to be releasing one here soon, a CRISPR-modified strain that can free up volatile oils from malt and hops. These are the compounds that are abundant in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, that give it a really fruity, tropical aroma. The precursors to those are actually abundant in malt and hops. Yeast already has a gene that can do that conversion, it’s just not normally on. So we basically switched on the gene that it can now free up these aroma compounds that are right there, ready for the taking.”

Whether it’s going back into traditional brewing methods to find new applications for heritage yeasts, or using distinctly modern tools to tweak the heroic yeast for new and exciting possibilities, Omega clearly has an acute sense for craft brewers’ wants and needs. And with the company’s R&D efforts still accelerating, we confidently expect the delightfully unexpected.

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