The most significant contribution to the growth of craft beer might be the most overlooked: liquid yeast. Wyeast Laboratories pioneered the sale of liquid yeast to brewers in 1986. Drawing on her food science background and laboratory experience growing liquid cultures for an agricultural company, Jenny Logsdon and her ex-husband launched the company in Hood River.
“Back then there were only a handful of dried yeast strains for beer — ale and lager,” said Logsdon. She said the options for this crucial ingredient were limited and the quality was often low because dried yeast was prone to bacterial contamination. “Liquid yeast is more reliable, easier to control, fresher with high viability and more diverse. The options are vast,” Logsdon continued.
The business started small in the Logsdons’ basement, selling primarily to home brewers. The unique, proprietary package called the Smack Pack — with an inner nutrient package that “activates” the yeast once the package is burst — made the product accessible and convenient to sell. The main challenge with liquid yeast is storing it at the proper temperature, cool but not freezing.
“Sales were slow to start and for the first 20 years business was almost seasonal,” said Logsdon. “After fall, sales would be steady until the first of the following year.” Logsdon explained that sales would then take a leap until the next fall. “Now there is no season,” she said. “The only change is in the strains of yeast ordered seasonally.”
In 2009, Jenny took over full ownership of the company. Today, Wyeast is busier than ever. With nearly 50 employees, the roster includes Jenny’s three adult daughters, 30-year-old triplets who manage different aspects of the business. In addition to selling to brewers all over the United States, Wyeast ships to 37 countries. “The only limitation here is that some countries don’t allow importation of live, liquid products,” said Logsdon.
Many original customers continue doing business with Wyeast. Among these are F. H. Steinbart, Full Sail, Rogue, Lagunitas, Widmer, August Schell, Hale’s Ales and many more leading craft breweries.
To meet the continued craft beer growth, a three-phase expansion project — in planning for several years — will begin in January. Tamara Logsdon, the quality control lab coordinator and brand manager, cited these industry statistics: “In 1986, there were only 124 breweries in the country. Today there are at least 7,000 with 2,000 more planned,” she said.
Wyeast’s current processing facility will soon undergo a major update and modernization to increase efficiency. Next, construction on a new 8,500-square-foot warehouse — replacing the 5,000-square-foot one currently leased — will begin this spring on land adjacent to the processing building. Finally, within the next two years, they will begin building an entirely new, expanded, state-of-the-art processing facility.
The newly appointed project manager for this expansion is Alisha Logsdon, who joined Wyeast full time in 2014. After graduating from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in business and leadership, she joined the company as vice president of operations to develop the infrastructure of the organization. Alisha soon stepped into the role of director of human resources. “I am excited for our upcoming construction project and to finally see the outcome from the success of our internal growth and development over the past several years,” she said.
The Wyeast lab can produce yeast around the clock, especially for custom orders. For many years, the company’s most popular yeast strain was American Ale, but Tamara said that when hazy IPAs took off, so did the sales of London Ale III — called the “hazy strain” by the brewing industry. The more popular yeast strains are produced two to three times a week. The process takes about a week and it’s complete after fermentation stops and the yeast settles to the bottom of the tank. Different strains settle at different rates.
“The lab monitors the fermentation based on pH and density of the batch,” Tamara said. “Each yeast strain has its own history and the lab maintains a chart based on historical data”
The company’s largest tanks produce 200 to 250 liters of product, from 52 to 66 gallons. Production forecasting is based on historical and seasonal data. Tamara said, “We have an idea where trends are going before they’re in the news.”
The amount that customers order varies widely. “We don’t have a minimum. We will sell as little as one liter,” said Tamara. “Usually clients will tell us how much they want, but we can also recommend how much they might need.” For a large direct pitch (the amount of yeast added to cooled wort) of 50 liters, Tamara explained the yeast is placed in 5-gallon containers. “Some customers may want as much as 120 liters,” she said.
The average order size is one to 10 liters. For a standard five- to 30-barrel craft brewhouse, Wyeast recommends one-half to one liter per barrel for a direct pitch. “We excel at unique orders and we have a crew who will do anything for our customers,” said Tamara.
For Jenny, it’s always been important to have support people on staff to assist customers with questions and problems. “It’s not simply selling a product but sharing knowledge and problem solving with customers for Jenny,” said Alisha. “She really enjoys fermentation science.”
In addition to the Wyeast yeast collection — which Jenny joked was too large to be economical — the lab grows about 200 proprietary strains or private cultures for clients. About 85 percent of sales are to brewers. Commercial brewers account for 70 percent or so and home brewers about 30 percent, Tamara stated. The other yeast sales are for wine, sake, mead, spirits and wild and sours.
Katrina Logsdon talked about the challenges of yeast and wine. Katrina works in the production department as a cellar operator and has handled numerous administrative positions over the years. She is interested in working in the wine industry and has experienced numerous harvests in New Zealand and locally. She will be returning soon to New Zealand to gain additional experience. “One of the challenges is deciding when to buy yeast for wine fermentation because harvest is always a moving target,” she said. “We have a two-week shelf life on our packages.”
“The investment with wineries is so much higher than with breweries,” said Jenny, “There’s only one fermentation a year.” So, she said, Wyeast will work with wineries who choose to bank yeast. But more often, wineries turn to the lab for malolactic cultures. These ease high wine acidity by reducing the sharp malic acid to a softer and smoother lactic acid. Malolactic cultures are often used on chardonnay to achieve a smooth, buttery flavor.
Wyeast obtained their first malolactic cultures from Oregon State University and had to pay royalties for them. The cultures came from Oregon wineries, explained Jenny. Now, Wyeast produces its own cultures for both red and white wines.
Wyeast recently introduced seasonal yeast strains quarterly when the company website features a core brewer — a brewer who embodies the company’s core values of legacy, quality, family, community, innovation and service. “Our employees are passionate about what they do,” Alisha said. “They respect Jenny and what she does.”
With its emphasis on quality and service, Wyeast will continue to be an industry leader among Oregon’s celebrated craft brewers. •