“Beauty and the Yeast” a profile of The Great Beer Company’s Brewer, Maribeth Raines-Casselman from the Los Angeles Times
Beauty and the Yeast
A local scientist tames yeast, the secret ingredient in beer.
By MICHAEL P. LUCAS, Times Staff Writer
Beer lovers like to talk about their favorite brew–how malty or hoppy or light or full-bodied it is. But ask them about yeast and you’ll probably leave them tongue-tied.
Yeast is the magic ingredient in the brewer’s recipe. Everybody knows it transforms cereal sugars into alcohol and carbonation. But it also affects the flavor.
To many beer lovers–and even some brewers–the powers of yeast are as mysterious as they are wondrous. But UCLA medical scientist Meribeth Raines-Casselman has bridged the worlds of microbiology and micro-brewing to help home beer makers harness yeast to create more interesting and flavorful brews. Along the way, she also created a commercial beer of her own in an unusual style.
“Brewing is chemistry and a fair amount of microbiology,” she says. Raines-Casselman, 39, holds a doctorate in biochemistry from Michigan State University and works as an assistant professor of radiation oncology and as the director of a microbiology research lab at UCLA Medical School. Her lab program performs research aimed at improving the quality of radiation cancer therapy and increasing the understanding of radiation-caused cancers.
The scholarly bearing and dry wit she maintains around the lab hardly betray her other life, that of a widely respected brewing-competition judge and a committed beer lover. She went so far as to get married on the sidewalk in front of Anchor Brewing Co., the pioneering San Francisco craft brewery.
She is also a member of the Maltose Falcons, a San Fernando Valley home-brewing guild whose members affectionately call her “M.B.”
“When you’re doing a brew, when you want to get the best yeast and most creative information, you just go see M.B.,” says Steve Keppler, 33, of Woodland Hills, president of the guild.
When he started making beer about four years ago, Keppler used the usual liquid yeasts sold at home-brewing supply shops and got reliable but unexciting brews. M.B. opened up a whole new world for him, he says: “She teaches a class where she takes yeast from other beers. She shows you how to culture yeast from a commercial sample, how to bring it down to one cell, then clean it and get a pure sample and grow it from there.”
In short, she shows brewers how to propagate their own yeasts by adopting standard lab techniques, a skill that gives them a great deal of flexibility to experiment with many styles of beer.
“Some yeasts will metabolize sugars better than others,” she explains. “But some will stay in suspension longer than others and really change the character of a beer.”
She has harnessed nearly 200 strains of yeast, and she recently developed a method that smaller breweries can use to propagate their own house yeasts. This is a big step toward achieving consistency, a quality that eludes many smaller brewing operations. Now she does consulting work for Brewers Resource, a Camarillo-based mail-order business for home brewers.
She has attracted attention in beer circles, having been tapped to judge a home brewing competition at the Los Angeles County Fair and a nationwide competition sponsored by the American Home Brewers Assn.
“She definitely knows her beer,” says David Edgar, director of the Institute of Brewing Studies in Golden, Colo.
Her latest role in beer is as brew master of the Great Beer Co. of Chatsworth. In June, the company introduced Hollywood Blonde, which first grabbed attention with its eye-catching label: an orange-crate lithograph-style illustration of a young blond woman wearing a strapless yellow dress split thigh-high.
The blond theme plays off the nature of the brew, made in the style of Kolschbiers of Cologne, Germany. Kolschbiers are a hybrid–top-fermented like ales but then lagered (kept in cold storage for a lighter flavor) like the familiar lager beer. They’re sometimes called golden lagers because they tend to have more color than the usual pale lager.
In “The Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer,” beer critic Michael Jackson describes the classic Kolsch flavor as “a very light fruitiness in the beginning, a notably soft palate . . . and a very delicate finish. . . .” The aim of a Kolschbier brewer, he writes, is “a light dryness in the finish and nothing too assertive.”
For the Hollywood Blonde recipe, Raines-Casselman uses three kinds of hops (perle, Tettnanger and Saaz), added earlier in the brewing process than is often the case, and three malts (American two-row for light body, Canadian Carapils for sweetness and Vienna for complexity), plus a wheat malt to hold a creamy head.
But the key ingredient is authentic Kolsch yeast, which Raines-Casselman obtained in Cologne. In many cases, the value of a particular strain of yeast is in the aroma, but Kolsch-style beer is lagered, which dampens the production of aromatic esters. What Raines-Casselman particularly values about the Kolsch yeast is that it gives the beer a characteristic crisp, grainy mouth feel.
“It’s a nice, light refreshing beer,” says Sam Sameniego, owner of Stuffed Sandwich, a San Gabriel lunch counter that carries hundreds of beers. “It has a nice, comfortable flavor to it. But I won’t sell it until summertime. It isn’t a winter beer.”
The project has been something of a triumph for Raines-Casselman, who developed the beer with her husband, Steve Cassellman, the owner of a computer development business and a longtime Maltose Falcon.
But her effort to educate beer lovers about the finer qualities of yeasts will be an uphill battle, says Dan Kahn, a brew master at Riverside Brewing Co.
“Most beer drinkers don’t understand yeast,” Kahn said. “They know that malt gives beer its body and color, and they know that hops are pretty distinct and obvious, but yeast imparts flavors that people aren’t usually aware of unless they brew beer.”
“When we give tours,” Kahn adds, “I pass around samples of malted barley and hops to give people an idea of where the basic flavors come from, but we can’t really do that with yeast.”
As for Raines-Casselman, she has only recently started thinking about what her next label might be. Great Beer Co. CEO Jim Rich Jr., she points out, is a TV producer who came from a family of brewers. “He thinks of each beer as a different movie,” she said. “So I’m not sure the next one will be Hollywood Brunette or Hollywood Redhead.”
* * * Hollywood Blonde is available in bottles at 600 Southland locations, including Hughes supermarkets and Bristol Farms markets. It is served on draft at Goat Hill Tavern in Costa Mesa, Barney’s Beanery in Los Angeles, the Yardhouse in Long Beach and Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica.
Copyright Los Angeles Times