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Taming the yeast

Bomber or bust: Forensic research leads to potential beer resurrection.

August 10, 2016

Nathan Solheim

When Helene Ver Eecke was a doctoral student, her research into microbial life took her to the bottom of the ocean. As an assistant professor of biology at MSU Denver, her research has taken her to the bottom of a beer bottle.

The owners of Denver’s Tivoli Brewing Company tapped Ver Eecke, who also teaches fermentation science in MSU Denver’s brewing program, with the task of obtaining the yeast from a decades-old bottle of Tivoli Helles Lager.

Cracking open a cold case

If successful, Ver Eecke’s research would result in the first process ever developed for recovering yeast from a beer bottle and culturing healthy numbers of cells suitable for fermentation. Her findings also could have a lasting impact on brewing and the liquor industry because the extracted yeast could be used again to brew beer.

“There’s absolutely nothing on how to recover yeast from a bottle,” Ver Eecke said. “This is more of a method discovery.”

As a specialist in microbiology and a self-professed “dorm brewer” in college, Ver Eecke readily agreed to the project. She quickly found that the only scholarly work on the subject documented the recovery of beer yeast discovered in old shipwrecks – where low light and cool temperatures create a pristine environment for survival.

In contrast, Ver Eecke knows very little about the storage conditions of the Tivoli Helles Lager bottle. There are many factors that could make recovering usable cells difficult. First, she’s working with a small sample – just 12 ounces. And high temperatures, light, bacteria and other contaminants may have decimated the microorganisms through the years.

“There’s a chance that everything is dead in there,” Ver Eecke admitted.

“Beerstorming” solutions

There’s also a chance any surviving yeast could be killed when she opens the bottle. Ver Eecke’s lab assistant – a senior MSU Denver biology major aptly named Ginger Stout – has performed numerous bottle-opening trials to determine the best way to crack into the aged vessel without harming the microbes. Should Ver Eecke find a single living yeast cell, her objective is to preserve the tiny organism and potentially grow billions of them.

Ver Eecke’s process, she said, also could apply to culturing yeast from other historic alcoholic beverages, including wine, liquor and champagne. Brewers also would have a how-to manual for recovering old yeast strains to use in modern-day brews.

Come helles or high water

That’s exactly what Tivoli founder and CEO Corey Marshall had in mind when he brought Ver Eecke his prized bottle of lager. Marshall resurrected the Tivoli Brewing Company in 2012 with a goal of making beer like its predecessor – the Tivoli-Union Brewery, which closed in 1969. Capturing the brewery’s yeast would allow him to brew today’s Helles Lager as close to the original recipe as possible.

“I’m 100 percent confident,” Marshall said. “Yeasts are hearty little guys. I think it’s going to be in the bottle. If not, we’ll be able to tell what kind of yeast it is. And if she doesn’t find it, I’ve got a few more places we can look.”

We’ll drink to that

Ver Eecke will present her research, “Protocol Optimization for Recovering and Culturing Yeast from Bottled Beer” at this year’s World Brewing Congress, which takes place Aug. 13-17 in Denver. Tivoli Brewing will host a World Brewing Congress kick-off party that starts at 5 p.m., Aug. 12, at the brewery on the MSU Denver campus. Members of the public are welcome.