This October, VinePair is celebrating our second annual American Beer Month. From beer style basics to unexpected trends (pickle beer, anyone?), to historical deep dives and new developments in package design, expect an exploration of all that’s happening in breweries and taprooms across the United States all month long.
Jasper Akerboom came to the United States after receiving his Ph.D. in microbiology and food technology from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He landed in northern Virginia, where he focused on protein engineering at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
How then, did he end up founding Jasper Yeast in Virginia’s Loudoun County?
Akerboom was drawn to the excitement of isolating his own unique strains of yeast, but also to the camaraderie he discovered in the rural area just outside Washington, D.C.
The brewing community is, he says, “a collection of lost souls.” Often referred to as “D.C.’s Wine Country,” Loudoun County is actually also home to over 30 craft breweries. Akerboom can’t choose just one favorite. They’re all doing great work, he says. There’s Wheatland Spring Farm + Brewery, where Akerboom developed the strain used in its Loudoun Grown Farmhouse Ale, a brew made entirely from locally sourced ingredients. Akerboom also created a strain of yeast from a whale bone fossil that was used in Lost Rhino Brewing Company’s Bone Dusters Paleo Ale.
Knowing that the majority of beer in the U.S. uses a very basic yeast product, he became invested in creating a more tailored experience for brewers. These unique strains, Akerboom says, create more expressive brews. Isolating a yeast strain from the same field a brewer’s hops are grown in, for example, provides a hyperlocal focus that is impossible to replicate with larger commercial yeast makers. Along with his business partner Travis Tedrow and their growing team, they are proud of the connections they’ve cemented both locally and on the national beer scene. Akerboom’s role as district president of the mid-Atlantic region of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas has given him the chance to learn what really matters to brewers and meet their needs.
Akerboom chatted with VinePair over brunch at Shoe’s Cup and Cork, a favorite local eatery in Leesburg, Va., where he lives with his wife and two young daughters.
The yeast industry is dominated in the U.S. by several large companies. How do you help clients understand the value in a more tailored product?
I would say the biggest challenge is that brewers all have different expectations and desires. It’s a very much a trust-based relationship and everyone’s needs are different. Since we are a smaller player, some people automatically assume that what we do would be less professional or of less quality. This is something that obviously is not true. We work with a lot of local breweries, and there is a Dutch saying that says, “What comes from far tastes good.” Something from the other side of the country is better than what you can get down the street, in some people’s minds. We help clients understand that this is not true. Travis and I are always a phone call away. If someone reaches out, we will talk to them and always help them. We are both former head brewers. I am coming from a production brewery, and Travis was a brewpub brewer for a long time. We understand the challenges of the job, and gladly offer help even when it has nothing to do with yeast.
What is your favorite brew or strain you’ve worked on and why?
We have developed a few saison strains that we isolated ourselves. Isolation is basically the process of reproducing a particularly favorable strain from a sample we find. It is really a lot of fun to learn more about these strains by using them. When other people use them, we try their beers, and get to know the strain even more. Using these in different recipes and under different conditions really brings out different characteristics of what we’ve isolated. We have a strain that we isolated from an old beer barrel that was found in DC. The barrel is from a brewery from long ago, and that strain is so unique. This particular strain is our JY102, American Saison III.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of our job is talking to people and feeling the connection to each brewery we work with. It’s just great to hear people be so enthusiastic about something we grew for them, and to know that we can be a part of it in the way that we do. Getting to know a lot of brewers is really a lot of fun. Most people are very collegial and friendly and it is just great to see old friends and have a beer with them. Most brewers are self-taught, and we’ve all come from different fields.
What do you see as the main difference between European beer and American beer, as this is American Beer Month at VinePair?
Historically, European beer is much more rooted in tradition than American beer. This is not always the case, of course, and there are exceptions. Americans started off from a clean slate after Prohibition. Besides the macro-brewed lagers, there was not much going on anymore, until the craft beer revival took place. Now the American beer landscape is totally different, with many breweries per capita. The envelope is pushed hard when it comes to trends in the U.S.A., perhaps maybe a little too hard. Some styles have already faded in popularity before beers ended up on the market. It’s hard to keep up! In Europe, beer styles are more regional, and breweries sometimes only make one style or a very limited number of styles. Ten years ago it would be impossible to find a German-style hefeweizen brewed in the Netherlands, for example. Lots of American craft breweries make a German-style hefeweizen, though, and no one bats an eye. European breweries have perfected specific styles over the years, but also become a little — maybe too — rigid. The American craft beer movement has blown to Europe as well, though, and things have been changing there for sure. It’s interesting to see Dutch brewers make New England IPA, for example, with their own twist on it. I would say the biggest difference would be that Americans are extremely innovative, and Europeans have historically strong traditions and their strength lies there. The world is becoming more cosmopolitan, though, and things are changing on both sides.
What are some things that could change within the beer industry?
The beer industry itself is maturing. It is hard to keep growing year after year as an industry, of course. There is always a fear from within the industry that the bottom will fall out, but beer and breweries will always be around, I think. In what shape or form is unknown, though.
The arrival of seltzer has definitely shaken things up, and brewers have a love/hate relationship with that beverage. It is an indication that some people are looking at other things besides beer, and where this all will go is the big question.
There is also a big push from employees for more responsibility and treating people better in the beer industry, which is a good thing.
When was the first time you felt successful or like you’d ‘made it?’
I would say when we started to hire people. Having someone work with you, represent the yeast in the brewing community, and be excited about where they work is actually very nice. Jasper Yeast had by then moved beyond just Travis and me.
Your whole professional life centers around beer. When you’re kicking back on a night off, what type of brew do you reach for, and why?
I have become less and less of a chaser, and I’m totally content in drinking a “low-brow” beverage. Beer, I think, should always be accessible. I’m always excited for the fall, as I am really into malty lagers when they are abundant and well made. It sounds perhaps crazy, but I’ve really had a craving for West Coast-style IPA. It’s making a little bit of a comeback, which is nice. In general I tend to go lighter — think saison, pilsners, pale ales. As long as it is well made, I’m totally happy with it!