Pintful: Haw River Farmhouse Ales shares its secret yeast

john.frank@newsobserver.comAugust 6, 2013 

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Ben Woodward at Haw River Farmhouse Ales spent more than a year cultivating a secret ingredient for his beers – a wild yeast he captured underneath a fig tree on a hill near the brewery’s forthcoming home in Saxapahaw.

The native yeast produced flavors and qualities that allow Haw River to make its Belgian-styled beers unlike any others. Think of it like a pitmaster’s special barbecue sauce recipe, the one with those unknown spices that draws enthusiasts from across the land.

But a few months ago, Woodward took a chance many would consider unthinkable – he gave away his secret. “We don’t have any secrets, I guess,” he said with a chuckle during a recent interview.

Woodward isn’t afraid to take chances. Collecting native yeast is a growing trend in the industry and one that fits Woodward’s brewery in particular.

Haw River’s concept is modeled on a Belgian farmhouse brewery, which is known for producing saison-style beers and using wild, naturally occurring yeasts that make them one of a kind. Most breweries use the mass-produced strains sold by large companies, but Woodward wanted to go a step further.

“We wanted to brew a completely unique beer, and with the market the way it is these days, that’s not an easy thing to do,” Woodward said. “We figured cultural-ing your own yeast was a great bridge between coming up with our own local, unique beer and paying homage to who started these Belgian farmhouse breweries ages ago.”

Deborah Springer, 39, a post-doctoral fellow at Duke University, helped Woodward isolate the yeast after he trapped it under the tree. She is a mycologist studying fungi and a craft beer fan. “There’s kind of this new movement to use locally derived or wild yeast,” she said. “It’s a renaissance in brewing.”

Haw River used the yeast earlier this year in collaboration with Trophy Brewing in Raleigh to produce a White Pine Saison made with local grain, pine needles and hops. He said it is likely the first all-North Carolina commercial beer, given that local yeast is still rare.

Even though the brewery tested the yeast in a handful of batches, it needed to know more about how it works. A new yeast, Woodward explained, brings more questions than answers. What flavors does it impart when fermented at a hotter or colder temperature? Does it blend well with dark and light styles? Can it handle a high-alcohol beer?

Crowd-sourced research

So Woodward and his wife, Dawnya, turned to local home brewers for help. They organized a home-brewing contest and shared the proprietary Saxapahaw yeast strain with 80 amateur brewers. The innovative project was part competition and part crowd-sourced brewing research.

“We were sort of questioning how well it would work in different styles,” he said. “Because we were so busy on our end, it was too difficult to even attempt to brew that many batches.”

Home brewers responded overwhelmingly to the challenge.

The initial 40 vials of yeast offered online in May were reserved in two hours. Responding to the demand, Woodward opened another 40 spots online and those were gone in 12 minutes. “I think home brewers really just dig trying new experimental things,” he said.

A panel of brewers, enthusiasts and certified beer judges scored the 74 entries last week. Woodward said the entries were hugely varied – from a barrel-aged milk stout to a pistachio pale ale.

“It allowed us to gather a whole bunch of information now that we can potentially use in the future,” he said.

The winner, Phillip Staley of Greensboro, made an obscure German sour beer style called Gose (pronounced “Gose-uh”) with a salty, coriander-spiced taste. Staley will brew a 10-barrel batch that Haw River will debut after it opens later this year. Nick Benner of Garner placed second with a Lime Basil Wit, a wheat beer made with lime zest and lime basil.

Staley is a Haw River fan and jumped at the chance to use its proprietary strain. “I just went for it because (Woodward) was trying to gather as much information as he could,” the 32-year-old welder said. “I think crowd-sourcing the beer was a really good idea.”

What I’m tasting

The Haw River yeast produces fun, funky flavors in beer. I used the strain from the competition to make a Peach Weissbier, a German wheat fermented with organic peaches. It didn’t finish in time to submit for the judging, but it pours nicely from my kegerator.

Get a taste of Haw River’s Belgian Blonde ale, made with its special yeast, at Co-Hops Beer Fest next month in Burlington. Tickets for the Sept. 21 event are on sale now. Info:

Contact John at 919-829-4698 or On Twitter @ByJohnFrank.

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