Generally speaking, any time we get to leave the confines of our labs and offices to engage the public in the science of their daily lives, we’re pretty stoked.

When that public engagement has something to do with BEER, well, that’s just AWESOME.

So was the case Saturday when Your Wild Life, in partnership with the NC Science Festival and the NC State Brewing Lab, set up shop in the Science of Beer Tent at the World Beer Festival in downtown Raleigh.

We served up samples of three beers, inviting Festival guests to participate in an experimental taste experience, an experience for which they had to thank a wasp, its wild yeast and the director of the NC Science Festival, Jonathan Frederick.

It was Jonathan who first introduced us to John Sheppard, NC State’s brewmaster:

You guys like microbes that live in weird places. John likes to make beer from yeasty microbes. Why don’t you all collaborate and make a beer from weird yeasty microbes?

We figured Belly Button Beer might be too much so we turned to the next best thing: BUGS. And that’s where Anne Madden, a microbial ecologist at Tufts University (soon to join us as a post doc at NC State), came in. She studies the bacteria and fungi associated with paper wasps. Turns out paper wasps and other related social wasps are little treasure troves of yeast diversity. Certainly there would be a good candidate for brewing beer in there…Story of beerAnd sure enough, with a bit of bench work (above), Anne and her undergraduate helpers found a wild yeast species, isolated from paper wasps, that they thought might make an interesting beer: Lachancea thermotolerans.

wasp and yeast

Brewmaster John and his team took it from there. They made three beers using the same base recipe (an ESB, or Extra Special Bitter). The only thing that differed in each recipe was the yeast.

For the first beer, they used standard brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevesiae. For the second batch, John and team mixed the wild wasp yeast (Lachancea thermotolerans) and brewer’s yeast together. For the third, they used only the wild wasp yeast.

And WOW, what a difference those yeasts make in the flavor of the three beers! A beer enthusiast, not so much an aficionado, I’ll share my impressions:

The wild wasp yeast beer, the lightest in color, made me pucker a bit with its sourness, something akin to the Belgian sour beers that are growing in popularity (and that I rather enjoy!). The mixed-yeast beer smelled a bit like sourdough bread, yet without the sour taste. More amber in color, it had a hearty, smooth taste. And the non-wasp beer? A solid malty ale with just a hint of bitterness.

And lest you think I’m biased because I’m part of the team that made the beer, I can tell you that many Beer Festival goers approached our taps with skepticism, wooed in by the sheer novelty of “wasp beer,” expecting to be disgusted more than delighted. Yet they all seemed to leave with big grins and a new-found appreciation for the yeasty microbes growing in weird places.

We live-tweeted our day at the World Beer Festival. Check out our Storify (and accompanying pictures) below:

Photo credits: Holly Menninger
Wasp Beer Flowchart credit: Anne Madden

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