August 19, 2019
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Maine firm goes to the edge of space to harvest unusual yeasts for brewers

Courtesy of Mainiacal Yeast
Courtesy of Mainiacal Yeast
Justin Amaral (left), co-owner and head of lab services at Mainiacal Yeast Labs in Pittsfield, with company investor and pilot Sam Canders in a plane taking samples of air at 45,000 feet off the earth's surface to try to find yeast strains suitable for brewing beer.

Mainiacal Yeast Labs lives up to the wild excitement and Maine roots its name suggests.

The Pittsfield company, which is in the process of moving to Vassalboro, recently helped Lanikai Brewing Co. of Hawaii extract “space yeast” for its Interplanetary Ale to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Yeast is used to ferment beer.

The yeast came from a Petri dish exposed to air by two NASA research pilots flying over Hawaii’s coral reefs and volcanoes, according to Forbes magazine. They flew in the stratosphere, about 70,000 feet above the Earth’s surface and the next layer of air above Earth’s atmosphere, to collect air containing yeast.

“They captured air coming in the intake vent,” said Justin Amaral, co-owner and head of lab services at Mainiacle Yeast.

Lanikai’s CEO, Steve Haumschild, sent the sample to Mainiacal to see if any of the yeast, which is commonly present in air, would be suitable for beer.

“We found one that worked in beer,” said Amaral, who is waiting for a shipment of the beer from Hawaii so he can taste it. He and Haumschild met through the “Milk the Funk” Facebook group, whose members tend to experiment with alternative tastes in food and beverages.

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Amaral, a brewer who studied microbiology, said he kept some of the “space yeast.” He will use it in beers that Mainiacal plans to produce at its new brewery and taproom to be set up in Vassalboro in October. He doesn’t plan to promote those beers as using “space yeast,” he said, in deference to Haumschild’s idea to collect and cultivate the yeast.

Mainiacal has cultured 3,500 different yeasts, both conventional yeast from plants and wild yeast from the air, but prefers to focus on wild and unused strains of yeast.

And Amaral keeps looking for unusual places to capture air, identify yeasts for beer and sell them to brewers who want to offer up different tastes in the ever-more-crowded craft beer market.

“He isolated a yeast that we captured on the top of our building,” said Jared Entwistle, head brewer and co-owner of Flight Deck Brewing, located on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station campus. “We are able to do something more unique and the yeast is 100 percent from Maine.”

Entwistle said the yeast is slow-acting so the beer, a blueberry lager, is in production now. Adding fruit flavors is a trend in craft brewing.

“Justin’s passion lies in the lesser known yeasts,” Entwistle said. “He is really able to turn anything you want into a flavor profile.”

Amaral is doing his own version of collecting yeast samples from high above the Earth with one of the Mainiacal’s co-founders, Sam Canders, a commercial pilot who owns a small plane. Amaral, Canders and Cody Martel founded Mainiacal in January 2018 and are the three employees now, though Amaral’s co-founders’ roles are largely as investors.

“Sam has his own plane so we fly over Pittsfield at around 45,000 feet and I collect air in a sanitized funnel I hold out the window,” Amaral said. He then takes the sample back and tries to identify usable yeast in it.

Mainiacal has investments of more than $100,000 so far from its co-owners, and had a profit of about $30,000 last year after Amaral got paid.

This January, it quadrupled its capacity for producing yeast, which it grows in tanks and ships commercially in plastic jugs as a liquid. It also sells dried yeast packets to home brewers. It expects to double capacity again by the end of this year. It sells throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and China.

Maine craft beer customers include Flight Deck Brewing and Moderation Brewing, both in Brunswick, as well as Bangor Beer Co. and Mast Landing Brewing in Westbrook.

[Step aside, millennials: The Maine craft beer scene belongs to your grandparents, too]

Mainaical recently collaborated with Bangor Beer in what, in a Facebook post, it called “a spin on a Urquell-inspired Czech Pilsner using our Czech pils yeast. We hit it with a bit of malted wheat to put our own spin on it. Lightly dry hopped with Saaz hops. Perfect summer crusher.”

Amaral plans to open a new brewery and taproom called Sidereal Farm Brewery in Vassalboro in late October. It had planned to open a brewery in the fall of 2017 in Bangor, but Amaral said expenses got too high and it never opened.

He said the new brewery, which is located on a farm, will be “very off the wall.” He plans to spontaneously ferment beer similar to the way

Allagash Brewing does, leaving unfermented wort in a shallow pan known as a coolship out in the open to be inoculated by wild yeast in the air.

“We’ll ferment a coolship in a tree, and spontaneously ferment pumpkin,” he said. “The venue also will have events including beer and food tastings.”

Just as Portland’s Bissell Brothers Brewing opened a location last summer in the owners’ rural hometown of Milo near Dover-Foxcroft touting a relaxed atmosphere, Amaral said his taproom will be in a rustic farmhouse on a fruit farm, along with the yeast lab.

“Yeasts create different flavors of beer,” Amaral said. “Once you go down the rabbit hole of beer, you find it’s about the yeast, and people have strong opinions.”

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