When Matt Bochman arrived at Indiana University Bloomington three years ago as an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry — fresh off a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University — one of the first things he did was pay a visit to some of the craft breweries throughout the region.
But this tour of the local watering holes was as much business as pleasure.
“I wanted to get my name out there as the local ‘yeast guy,'” he said.
Although his primary work involves conducting basic research with applications to cancer, Bochman also has a passion for the science of craft brewing, including the microscopic organisms that are key to the brewing process.
Shortly after making the rounds of local breweries, Bochman struck up a fruitful partnership with Flat 12 Bierwerks, a craft brewery in downtown Indianapolis just a mile east of Monument Circle. The owners reached out because they wanted to create “an all-Indiana beer.”
“They peppered me with all sorts of questions — about quality control, setting up a lab, experimenting with yeast — but what they really wanted to do was create a whole new brew,” Bochman said. “They had Indiana water, they had Indiana hops, they had barley that was grown and malted in the state, but they needed the yeast.”
Fortunately, brewer’s yeast grows on trees — literally. Tree bark is one of the best sources for the tiny microbes. So are flowers, fruits, berries and many other natural resources across the state. Soon Bochman had helped Flat 12 identify a strain of yeast for their project.
He has also consulted with breweries and craft distilleries such as Cardinal Spirits and Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington; Sun King Brewery and Central State Brewing in Indianapolis; and the Maui Brewing Co., based in Hawaii.
But collaboration with Flat 12 also sparked an idea for a business. In 2015, Bochman successfully applied for a $13,000 translational research pilot grant from the Johnson Center for Innovation and Translational Research, an IU Bloomington-based organization in Simon Hall that works with faculty throughout the campus to identify current and new research programs that hold commercial potential and to protect intellectual property.
Bochman’s company, called Wild Pitch Yeast LLC, provides home and craft brewers kits with instructions for “bio-prospecting” yeast in their own backyards, after which the samples are sent to the lab to test for strains of brewer’s yeast and enriched for ethanol-tolerant cultures. The company then returns the isolated yeast strains to the brewers, along with a scientific breakdown of the yeast’s properties and the option to buy larger amounts of the cultures, typically enough to create a five-gallon test batch of beer. Quantities for up to 30-barrel batches are also available.
The company also retains the right to “bank” a strain of the yeast for future use, and Bochman has filed intellectual property disclosures on a number of the strains for potential licensing to larger craft breweries. His partners in the company are Rob Caputo, executive director of the Brewers of Indiana Guild, and Justin Miller of Black Acre Brewing in Indianapolis.
“We’ve had people send in stuff from everywhere,” Bochman said. “The home brewers are especially creative … we’ve had people send in their hair, the soupy contents of puddles from beer spills, the spent grains left over after brewing that typically sit outside in dumpsters after they’re used in the brewing process … plus of course plenty of samples from more traditional sources.”
And the yeasts can make a big difference in the brews. “In beers that aren’t heavily hopped, the yeast is responsible for 50 percent or more of the flavor,” he said. The same batch of wort, for example, can be transformed into six distinctly different flavored beers with six different types of yeast.
In less than a year, Wild Pitch Yeast has banked about 300 strains of brewer’s yeast, primarily from Midwestern states such as Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania — but they’ve also got strains from New York, Texas and California and European countries such as Belgium and Italy.
In addition to an inspiration for a business, Bochman’s interest in craft brewing has recently become a path to publication. His most recent consultation with Upland Brewing — to help troubleshoot bottling complications on a batch of sour beer called “Cauldron” — is the basis of a paper out this month in the academic journal Food Microbiology.
It’s also a source for bonding with friends and family outside the world of academia. “Even though my main job is working on basic questions in biochemistry related to cancer, it’s my work with yeasts and craft beers that everyone always wants to talk about when I’m home for the holidays,” he said.
The Johnson Center grant ends in April, but Bochman’s eager to find more funding to continue the project.
“Ideally, I would like to have a graduate student working on this full time,” he said. “The hard part is funding.”
What isn’t the hard part? Finding interested graduate students.
“They’re knocking down the doors,” he said with a laugh.