Just a few years ago Brian Roth and Jeff Rapp discovered a flower on 15 acres of land almost on accident.
This flower is now a beer served on tap the nights that Southern Brewing Company opens that same land to the community.
“Just as I was about to quit,” Roth said “Dr. Rapp was like ‘Well isn’t that a wild azalea right behind you?’ And I turned around and I went ‘Oh my goodness’ and it was just the most beautiful Georgia pink wild azalea, tiny little azalea sitting in the middle of this little sunlight patch,” Roth said.
From that first flower they isolated what is known as their Wild Azalea yeast strain and they’ve caught almost 87 yeast strains in and around Athens since.
“It took us a long time to figure out how to harvest wild yeast and it’s still a little difficult,” Roth, the cofounder of Southern Brewing Company said. “It’s kind of a lost art. Basically every beer style is a different yeast for the most part.”
Wild Azalea produces mango, peach and papaya notes and gives an acidity like a wild plum to the beer.
Roth said the overall goal for developing the craft beer was to figure out what would be stable in the local community. The brewery uses barrels from Blue Ridge, Georgia and gets most of the fruits from the Athens area as well.
“How strawberries taste in Athens, Georgia on yeast from Athens, Georgia that’s a combination you can’t taste anywhere else,” Roth said.
Southern Brewing Company doesn’t just get their ingredients locally. They also work locally with different departments from the University of Georgia such as microbiology, genetics and fermentation.
“It’s nice to have a university that’s so dynamic and central to the community that is willing to help us out,” Roth said.
Most breweries take about 10 years to get a lab going, Roth said. But he explained how after some travel he learned that every good brewery has a lab and made that a priority by creating R&R Yeast Lab with Rapp.
“I think that there’s this kind of bootstrap help each other out mentality in the south,” Roth said. “The university itself is interested in building local relationships, building local businesses.”
Southern Brewing Company is able to freeze their yeast with the university and reach out to the people in the departments they work with during the process. Most of the yeast that is caught is not beer yeast and it takes a lot of time to isolate certain strains and get them to become the beer that most people know.
“It takes a little bit of time to teach them how to make beer … The combination of flavors that we get out of these yeast is definitely this region,” Roth said. “Our yeast has a definitive southern twang to it.”
Yeast is a single cell fungus that clones itself. If frozen, it can be brewed with forever, Roth said. He mentioned Anheuser-Busch has been brewing from a single culture since around 1876 for Budweiser.
“Yeast is the star of the show. It’s funny because everyone talks about hops and grains but yeast does all the work,” Roth said.
Rapp explained how they use a sweet solution called wort that they use as a base when collecting.
“We had that in a flask and we’d go around and just pluck a flower and throw it in there,” Rapp said.
From there they use different microbiology techniques to isolate each strain. When the yeast breaks down sugar, alcohol and CO2 are created and with each yeast there is a special kind of flavor that comes out with that product.
“Some of them make beautiful acids like you would find in wine, some of them make wonderful floral compounds and sometimes we get yeast that just aren’t worth brewing with but they’re interesting,” he said.
Southern Brewing Company’s main objectives are to brew sustainably and work with the people in the area to keep that going. Harvesting their own yeast and working with the university is one way they stay local.
“The goal is that we are immersed in this community. Just like this yeast, we’re embedded in it,” Roth said.