Poly professor brews beer with 45-million-year-old yeast

Poly professor brews with microorganisms he found in fossilized amber

nwilson@thetribunenews.comJanuary 18, 2011 

A Cal Poly professor’s mission to turn a 45-million-year-old yeast into an ingredient for a beer has proven successful — and now he hopes to grow his operation locally.

Raul Cano, a Cal Poly biology professor, discovered the yeast in amber that came from Myanmar, which was previously known as Burma, while conducting research in the 1990s.

Cano gained international recognition at the time for his discovery that microorganisms could be brought back to life by extracting them from amber found in Myanmar, North America and Central America.

The microorganisms are able to lay dormant for long periods of time without air or food.

Through brewing experiments with collaborators, Cano has been able to take strains of yeast from the ancient amber and grow them. And he was interested in finding out how it could be used in food or drinks.

“Beer was the obvious product from an organism such as yeast,” Cano said. “It was either that or bread. But beer seemed more adventurous.”

Fossil Fuels Brewing Co., the beer company that he’s formed with partners Chip Lambert, Joe Kelley and Scott Bonzell, now produces beer for sale primarily in Northern California bars and pubs.

Cano also has made the beer available for sale at Gennaro’s Grill and Garden in San Luis Obispo — where he’s a partner.

Fossil Fuels Brewing Co. has used Cano’s initial extraction of yeast to grow a much larger batch that fills a warehouse in Northern California used in the beer-making process.

“Our main beer is a wheat beer, and we also have a pale ale, but we’re really working on others, including an amber ale and an Oktoberfest,” Cano said.

Of those beers popular in the mainstream market, Cano compares the taste most closely to that of Blue Moon.

Despite initial skepticism from some about the taste the beer would produce, Cano says the flavor turned out surprisingly good and unique.

Critics have described the taste as one with lots of spice, resembling cloves, along with tinges of ginger and pineapple.

One thing that makes the yeast different is its genetic makeup — which allows the beer to finish with a desirable clear color instead of a cloudy resolution because of how the prehistoric yeast strain ferments sugars, Cano said.

Cano wouldn’t reveal information about annual sales, but he said the 2-year-old company currently produces about 20 barrels a month — a very small amount, but he has high hopes.

He says the biggest challenges to growing the company include continued development of quality styles of beers, forming a skilled management team and, most importantly, financing — including proper marketing and promotion.

The brewing is done at Kelley Brothers Brewing Co. in the Central Valley town of Manteca.

“I’d love to get some investors interested in expanding the company,” Cano said. “I’m also interested in brewing it locally in San Luis Obispo.”

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