BY STEVE PATCHIN
The dream — and the challenge — of many new microbrewery owners is to craft a series of distinctive tasting beers that no one else can replicate. For many of these microbreweries, the solution to that challenge has been found in the work of Emily Geiger, Ph.D., founder and co-owner of Craft Cultures Yeast Labs, a Hancock, Mich.-based startup venture in the fast-growing world of micro-brewed gourmet beer.
Geiger’s niche market has the 28-year-old microbiologist working on a referral basis as others in the industry discover her unique ability to find strains of yeast that contribute their own characteristic flavor to each culinary creation.
A native of Muskegon, Mich., Geiger says her mother’s work in a hospital lab introduced her to microscopes and the wonders of what can’t be seen by the human eye, essentially igniting her love of science.
Family vacations took the Geiger family to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and to Marquette, home of Northern Michigan University, where her parents both studied.
When it came to deciding on a college, Geiger says she was looking for a place that would challenge her abilities in math and science. Her love of northern Michigan led her in 2007 to Michigan Technological University (MTU) in Houghton, a school she felt had a challenging curriculum in the biosciences and a climate she loved.
In 2012, immersed in her biochemistry/molecular biology doctoral program at MTU, Geiger was offered a part-time job at the Keweenaw Brewing Company as a quality assurance manager.
“It was the coolest opportunity because I was applying my knowledge,” says Geiger. “I had been studying, studying and studying and it was the first job where I actually got to apply what I learned. It was the hands-on industrial application of my knowledge and the usefulness of it. I found out really quickly that there was value in my knowledge, stuff that seemed obvious to me, that people who don’t study microbiology have no idea about.”
Shortly after Geiger began working at the brewery, the owners asked if she could propagate their yeast, a process of isolating and breeding the specific strains of yeast they were using.
“It took eight months to optimize the process,” she says. “I realized the value in yeast, what the brewers pay and the frequency they pay. I did a little research and found that there were no liquid yeast manufacturers east of the Mississippi River.” With Michigan’s growing reputation as “The Great Beer State,” Geiger says, “There were tons of craft microbreweries that had no source for yeast and so the light bulb went on and I went with it.”
The seeds of Craft Cultures Yeast Labs were planted.
In 2013, Geiger engaged with the Smart Start program in Houghton, a service of the state’s SmartZones business incubators supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Through the Smart Start program, Geiger secured $30,000 in funding to launch a website and build a business plan to brand and market her company. She also met Scott Mao, who helped her structure the financial side of her business. Mao has since become Geiger’s business partner. A $6,000 loan from a family member helped with the purchase of necessary equipment.
Geiger understood her competition, acknowledging the challenges inherent in the growing microbrewery industry across the country. She recalls a conversation with one Michigan brewery owner: “He said the gourmet beer market is becoming saturated with options, and new strains of yeast that provide brewers with a unique taste will revolutionize the market.”
That was the challenge Geiger needed.
Yeast hunting in the U.P.
Craft Cultures now hosts 52 strains of yeast, with10 of the strains indigenous or native, from her small laboratory in Hancock, Mich. How does Geiger find these yeast strains?
“Our bestselling strain is from Eagle River in the U.P.,” she says, recalling a friend from Schmohz Brewery in Grand Rapids telling her: “It always smells ‘yeasty’ up there.” The location was along the rocky shores of Lake Superior, where Geiger’s friend had explored as a student at MTU. Geiger set out her “yeast hunting” traps and discovered the native strain.
Yeast hunting and processing involves setting yeast traps, which are basically mason jars filled with sugar water or apple cider and wrapped with cheesecloth to keep insects out. The traps, situated at the desired outdoor location, act as bait for the yeast.
Geiger checks the traps every 48 hours to see if the liquid is turbid, or cloudy, indicating captured yeast. Geiger then brings the captured yeast back to the lab, where yeast colonies grow. When the colonies become visible (a billion cells in size) Geiger identifies the yeast strain and repeats the process — generally four times — to accurately isolate the strain.
These new yeast strains are then tested to see if ale lager enzymes are present and determine tolerance to alcohol. The final yeast strain is provided to interested brewers in a five-gallon sample, allowing them to brew a test batch and decide if it produces a successful tasting beverage. The rights to the yeast strain are retained by Craft Cultures, securing future yeast orders.
According to Geiger, Craft Cultures serves as a service for any brewer to isolate yeast they may use or discover. Geiger does not charge for this service, but retains the rights to the stock culture, which allows Craft Cultures to be a lifelong supplier of that yeast strain.
Her business has grown beyond beer. Recently, the maker of the Mexican tequila known as MAGAVE opened a Tequila Pub in Detroit. The company uses an isolated yeast strain from Craft Cultures to produce its gourmet tequila, with Geiger’s company retaining the production rights to that particular strain.
A passion for teaching
In addition to overseeing operations at Craft Cultures, Geiger teaches biological science classes at Finlandia University in Hancock and Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Mich. Her passion lies in teaching others, whether they are students in the lab or new craft brewers trying to produce the next hot gourmet beer to hit the adult beverage market.
She also reaches out to young entrepreneurs with straightforward advice: “Use resources available to you. You can’t do everything. Find the experts, those familiar with the industry you’re in and the challenges you will face.”
A young entrepreneur’s support network
Emily Geiger can’t say enough about the importance of a solid support network. She says hers was built around three mentors, all of whom she met at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich.
Jeff Lewin’s passion for education influenced Geiger. Heading up lab operations in the MTU biology department, Lewin developed engaging, hands-on lessons for students while his special interest was inspiring pre-college students to explore the wide world of biology.
Dr. Kenneth Michael encouraged Geiger to begin engaging in undergraduate research, an area in which she thrived. She says the research techniques and process efficiencies she learned helped her in her entrepreneurial quest.
Dr. Susan Bagley became Geiger’s role model. Her expertise in the fermentation process was the seed that eventually led Geiger to yeast propagation, the process of growing these unique strains of yeast. Geiger says she was drawn to Dr. Bagley because she challenged Geiger to produce her best academic effort.