Lost Rhino’s Jasper Akerboom – Northern Virginia’s Professor of the Microbial Arts

(L-R) Nick Anderson, Jasper Akerboom and Nassim Sultan bottle the Stublendious sour. The bottles are capped, labeled, and wax dipped by hand.

(L-R) Nick Anderson, Jasper Akerboom and Nassim Sultan bottle the Stublendious sour. The bottles are capped, labeled, and wax dipped by hand.

By Jefferson Evans and Chuck Triplett

When you are a brewer in northern Virginia and the Greater D.C. Metro Area and you need help obtaining or taming those microscopic beasties that are the little engines that turn sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide while also generating a wide range of flavor imparting compounds, who you gonna call? Often the answer is Jasper, as in Lost Rhino’s resident PhD and Microbiologist Jasper Akerboom. Having helped many breweries in the area with yeast, Jasper is known for his enthusiasm for his job, his work ethic and innovativeness, his generosity, and for being just one hell of a nice guy. Recently Chuck and I caught up with Jasper on the job at Lost Rhino and he kindly gave us an informative and fun tour, showing us where he works and what he does.

 

Virginia Craft Beer Magazine (VCB): What were your early experiences with beer and how did you come to appreciate good beer?

 

Jasper: I grew up in The Netherlands, in a small town called Boxtel, in the province of North-Brabant. In that area of the Netherlands, Belgian beer styles reigned supreme. Very close was the Trappist brewery Koningshoeven that makes the La Trappe series of Trappist beers. A lot of people grow up drinking mass produced Dutch lager and Belgian pale ales such as Palm Speciale De Koninck, and anything that was a little higher in ABV was determined “speciaalbier” (special beer) and was often drunk on special occasions. One difference between Belgium and The Netherlands is that Dutch people like sweeter beer, while Belgians tend to like the beer to be drier. Adding a little bit of syrup and pouring an Abbey beer on top was common in those days, similar to Berliner Weiss in Germany. As in many places, beer is part of life, and slowly drinking a bottle of Trappist beer not from a fridge, rather “off the wooden plank,” in the proper glass with your friends is something I miss for sure.

 

VCB: What are your education details? How did your higher education cross paths with beer?

 

Jasper: I went to Wageningen University for my undergrad and Masters. Wageningen is the highest ranked university in the world when it comes to agriculture, with Cornell and UC Davis as number 2 and 3. It has a strong focus on food science, and lots of food companies have set up shop in the small town of Wageningen to be closer involved in the research. I did two MS thesis projects, one in England at the lab of David Rice where I worked on the structure determination of proteins from extremophiles, and one in the Lab of Microbiology where I worked on an enzyme involved in carbohydrate metabolism of similar organisms. The lab offered me a position as a PhD student after I was done. I worked under John van der Oost on carbohydrate metabolism, basically a lot of genetics and biochemistry. This was from 2002 to early 2007. In that lab we had Dr. Wout Middelhoven working, who was retired, and is well known in the world of wild yeast. Several professors and students were using yeast to ferment either wine or beer, and I remember brewing my first batch of beer in that lab, after 5PM.  It was an all grain batch of pilsner I fermented in a temperature controlled room that was available – nowadays that would be impossible – and it was a lot of fun to drink the beer at the laboratory picnic. We had quite a substantial culture collection which I believe ended up at the CBS in Utrecht (the world largest mycological culture collection). I left Wageningen in 2007 for Ashburn, Virginia, got a job as a postdoc at Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the lab of Loren Looger. That meant switching gears, no more microbiology, the focus was and still is neuroscience at Janelia. A phenomenal research institute. I worked there from 2007 until 2014.”

 

VCB: How did you come to really realize that working in a brewery was an option you were seriously interested in? How did you come aware of the position to run the Lost Rhino yeast program and lab was available?

 

Jasper: I immediately picked up home-brewing again after arriving in the USA. The craft beer movement was already in full swing over here, but news and beer did not really trickle over to The Netherlands in those days. That has totally changed now, Amsterdam has a beer bar that focuses almost exclusively on American brewed craft beer, for example. I home brewed quite a bit when I was in the Netherlands, most beers were in the Belgian style. American hops were hard to find, and I did not have proper cooling either. I did work behind a bar for a while, but that was my only exposure to professional brewing. I was astounded to find out how far the craft beer movement had evolved, and how widely available it was. Either way, I wanted to try some different things when I got to the US, and started to make beers with yeasts I isolated myself, and I really liked the flavor and how these beers turned out. I expanded my home brewery, and became a more advanced brewer for sure. I was very excited we had a brewery close to where I lived, Old Dominion, but that brewery was shut down very quickly after I arrived in the area. I heard through the grapevine that two former brewers, Matt Hagerman and Favio Garcia, were going to start up another production brewery in Ashburn. At one of the opening parties, I got to meet Favio and told him about the yeast I had isolated. He was very excited about the missing piece in his puzzle of creating a 100% local beer. We collaborated on a beer and called it Farmwell Wheat, it was a great beer that we brewed with a similar grist bill as an American wheat. We added some orange peel at the end of the boil, and it became a great smooth brew. The yeast played a major role in this beer; it was a nice time to get to know this strain a little better. Lost Rhino was just getting started at that point and there was no time to run a lab and so forth for Favio, so I started to help him on that front once a week or so in the evenings on a voluntary basis.

 

VCB: What your experience coming to Lost Rhino, finding “one small incubator and some hlp tubes” as you told us, and making the lab and processes what they are today.

 

Jasper: The original priorities and goals for me were to help Lost Rhino out on the yeast front and with quality control, get to know the brewing industry a little, and get the lab up and running. I was helping out, not really working for Lost Rhino. I was here on an H1B Visa, and was working on my prolific scientific career. I had to make a choice, to become a university professor, fight for grants, go into industry, or follow what I really started to care about, and that was brewing and the scientific and artisanal part of it. I think the word artisanal is overused, but it does apply well here. For the brewery, it was important to get the quality control in order. Not because there were problems at all – but Favio and Matt both have extensive experience and know how essential such a program is.

 

VCBM: How much autonomy have you had when it comes to handling the yeast and other microorganisms, and determining the equipment and processes?

 

Jasper: One hundred percent – a lot of the equipment is my own. It helps Lost Rhino with the lab needs and I can use it for side projects, such as Bright Yeast Labs we are starting. My background has been 100% yeast, but I have worked in the field of microbiology for a long time, and yeast has been a model organism I worked with quite a bit. A trained lab person can easily do the things I do, it’s just knowing when to do it, how much to do it, and how to interpret the results, that is the most important part. One thing was I had to switch my thinking a little – coming from a laboratory that was involved in fundamental science to now focusing on SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] and protocols, it is a little bit of a different perspective. The science plays a supportive role, it is not the end goal – the end goal is to produce award winning beer. We are still a small brewery, so you will not find a HPLC [High Performance Liquid Chromatography] or GC [Gas Chromatography] in our brewery. But we do have a UV-spectrophotometer that we use to measure IBUs in beer and chlorine levels in the water to make sure the filter does its job. We have a very nice bio-safety cabinet we use for all our sterile work, it was a small miracle how we got it into the brewery. We have two -80C freezers that we use for our yeast stocks. They are also great to freeze rubber bungs so we can drill holes in them ;). We have an ATP meter we use occasionally. We have established a really nice program to propagate yeast, and we do that routinely in house. As to equipment, I was always scouting auction sites. It’s a gold mine for nice lab equipment that you can get for not too much money, such as the $20K cryo-storage unit we got for $200.

 

VCBM: how many yeast strains are routinely in use for the “normal” beers? How many yeast strains do you think you have dealt with since starting at Lost Rhino?

 

Jasper: We have used around 30 different yeasts at Lost Rhino for our normal beers, several Belgians we liked, several different American ale yeasts, different German strains, English yeasts, several lager yeasts, really quite a few. At one point we had 12 different yeasts fermenting, our record, I think. At Bright Yeast Labs we have stocked 200 yeast strains. These are yeasts that friends have sent me – I am waiting for a polish yeast that is coming in hopefully soon from a friend of mine opening up a Brewery in Lodz, Poland, a yeast I got from a friend in the Netherlands, a whole bunch of isolates from natural sources, a whole lot of bottle isolates, too many sources to really count. There are trading groups, and people are getting better at handling pure yeast cultures. There is a lot of misinformation out there, but pro and home-brewers are getting better and better at handling yeasts and generating pure cultures of wild or home cultivated yeasts. People are now trading them like baseball cards, and there is always something hotter, funkier and trendier on the horizon that people are trying to get their hands on. People are now breeding their own strains by crossing different strains; it is quite interesting to see how mainstream it has become.

 

VCB: What wild yeast strains such as Brett, and microorganisms such as lacto and pedio have you used at Lost Rhino? How do you obtain them then and now?

 

Jasper: We have approximately 30 different Brett or Brett-like yeasts at Lost Rhino. We have several yeasts we isolated ourselves, from either outside or from some spontaneous Belgians and other sources. We have not sequenced them all; some we did; that is how we identified those as Brettanomyces. Some of them are very funky, some of them grow very quick, some are very slow growers, some like it hot, some show a remarkable drop in pH, some do not. Of course there is variation in the genus and there are several species. It is fun to play with these organisms, blend them, and see what they do to beers. Some of these Brett yeasts show very different flavor developments in beers that are hopped differently.

 

VCBM: How do you approach controlling the “wilder” microorganisms you deal with at the brewery?

 

Jasper: As every brewery should approach it, you clean it immediately, you do not let stuff sit and cake on, and you clean, clean, clean. We have separate hoses for sour beer, and one tank that we use for bacteria, but we are not afraid of Brett. Its abstract, you cannot see it, so you assume it’s there. You do not roll the dice, you clean extra, and sanitize with different chemicals and pasteurize well. It is the bacteria I am more afraid of, especially when the temperature gets up there in the summer months, and there is spent grain around. There is nothing you can do but to be on top of it. We have never had (knock on wood) any issues, but I am sure we will have them in the future, because life will find a way. We test everything every week, and double check everything when we find something.

 

VCB: What have been some of the more interesting strains you have worked with, whether the Bonedusters yeast, the strain cultivated for the Birth of Ace, the 100-year-old Ukrainian wine yeast, and so on?

 

Jasper: Oh, the Bonedusters strain; the most finicky and difficult yeast you can imagine, but it does produce such an elegant ale that holds up remarkably well over time. The yeast has a very long diauxic shift. It is a Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast, and it does not like wort over 12-13 plato. The temperature needs to be high for it to ferment out, and flocculation is nonexistent. But the beer it produces is absolutely phenomenal and I cannot wait to brew it again. The Birth of Ace yeast, or BYL087 – Brett brux Chateaux it’s officially called – was isolated from a spontaneous Belgian beer. The yeast grows very quick and the cell shape is very similar to Saccharomyces. It produces a very clean beer, with a little funk, and it blends really well with specific hop varieties. I have shared the yeast with some west coast brewers, and some have been able to train the strain to be able to get through high gravity worts more easily. It’s a really versatile yeast and somewhat of a favorite of mine. One of the most delicate and elegant wild yeasts we have isolated is the yeast we use for Native Son. When people think about wild yeast, they often think about something that is untamed, unrefined, farmhouse-like, intense, phenolic, acidic, etc. This strain is none of the above. It is very delicate, it produces a old-fashioned hard candy and honey like character, and has a flowery ester profile. It is truly an underappreciated yeast strain. We sell the strain also through Bright Yeast Labs (BYL031), and it is not really picked up by that many people. It works well in Saisons, people have successfully used it to make cider and even a commercial distillery uses the strain. The only downside of this yeast is that the attenuative power is high; it keeps on trucking; also when it is in kegs. That can result in beer that is too carbonated, and will result in complaints from bars. We have devised special degassers we can use on the kegs before they are put on to circumvent this problem, but it is inherent to putting a saison on tap – the volumes of CO2 are just very high. It works best when bottled, as it should be.  I was lucky enough to hear the presentation of Yvan de Baets a few CBCs back [Craft Brewers Conference] on his brewery and saisons. He basically said, and I wholeheartly agree, that one should step away from always getting the same strain (aka most likely Dupont or Thiriez) and use your own yeast, and drive it a little. It’s about the yeast and getting to know it more, and that is how I feel as well. I isolated a yeast from a barrel that was found in DC somewhere in a basement of an old building. It looks like a small wooden “pin” sized barrel, about 5 gallons. It is on display at the Torpedo Factory Building in Alexandria, at the local Archaelogical Society. It belonged to the Washington Brewing Company. The yeast that came out has a Belgian-like character, and we brewed a saison with it. It got us the grand champion award of Belgian/French beer styles at the US beer tasting competition last year, a nice result for sure.

The last one I wanted to touch on is the Lost Rhino house strain. We have kept that yeast going for about two years without going back to the original yeast. We have kept close tabs on the performance, and carefully select the yeast we like from one of the many fermenters containing the strain. If there is something we do not like, we select another fermenter. This only works if you stick to an optimal time frame and if you have many fermenters with the same yeast going, and if you are brewing enough. For us, we were looking for a yeast that would ferment a little cooler and would flocculate well without detrimental effects on the diacetyl reduction capacity, and that is basically what we got. Of course you get what you screen for is the dogma that is being used in directed evolution, and that is (albeit in a basic way) what we have pushed for. It would really be interesting to sequence the initial yeast we started off with and the house strain we use right now and see what has changed between the two. The costs have dropped like a piece of old underwear – right now it’s about 1000-2000 dollars to get a genome sequenced with one of the next generation methods. Assembly and annotation not included of course. Something for the future, it would be a nice project.

 

VCB: What were the first barrel-aged beers and where were the barrels obtained from?  What type of beers do you tend to barrel-age these days and where are the barrels coming from?

 

Jasper: This is a very good question. The first barrel aged beers done at Lost Rhino were the woody stout barrels. We were able to get several different kinds of fresh bourbon barrels, from Heaven Hill and from Bowman. It is more and more difficult to get good and fresh barrels that do not break the bank, the price is of course market dependent and everybody is looking into making barrel aged beers nowadays, but we have been getting by and have gotten barrels every year. We used some of these barrels after we used them for the stout for a barley wine, and the barrel character was slightly faded. At this time, we had about twenty barrels that we wanted to start with. We filled half of them with a Belgian blonde, and half of them with Icebreaker, a double IPA we do every spring. Every barrel was inoculated with a different Brettanomyces yeast we isolated in house, and we gave them time to see what would develop. This was all done in bourbon barrels, that are charred substantially more than wine barrels, and this is a reason people shy away from them. Since it was all we had we used it like that. We took careful notes of the development and learned a lot in those days. Some of these barrels ended up as our first Exesus Sanctum run, a beer we are very proud of and have done several times now. Of course we do have wine barrels now as well, but we still do some wild fermentations in the former bourbon barrels. Overall we found not a big difference but sometimes there is still a little vanilla that can come through initially. We have used most of the bourbon barrels plenty of times so it’s nice that the woodiness has subdued for some purposes. Working with the wine barrels is a whole different beast.

 

VCB: What have been some of the particular successes and failures of the barrel-aging program?

 

Jasper: I think the fact that we were able to repeat a consistent batch of peach sour was our greatest achievement. To make sour beer is not hard; to make it consistent and repeatable is a very different story. We work with local ingredients, the peaches are grown in Loudoun County, and they vary between harvests. That makes it hard to make it 100% identical every time, but we are getting close. The Alphabrett, a beer that was barrel aged with a single brett yeast from Amsterdam, was one of the better sour beers we’ve done, and the Woodpucker is one of the best beers we have done. But I feel it’s not really us making these beers, it’s the actual organisms that are in these barrels that are making the beer. We just provide them with a place to live, and a meal. We have done some 100% spontaneous beers as well that came out really nice. It’s all about the timing and being unhurried I think. I have to keep telling the sales team “I’m sorry but the beer is not ready”, and it’s a hard job to disappoint them all the time, but it is what it is. Failures are always there, because we are not in control of what the microorganisms do in the barrel, at least until a certain point. We have had sours that went too far sour; or ones where the flavor was just not what we wanted to be. We have had barrels that we had to wait for a long time to become what we wanted it to be, not really a failure, but it can take a while.

 

VCB: Who are the breweries you have helped out with yeast since starting at Lost Rhino?  What are some favorite beers or ciders that resulted?  Have you been involved in a collaboration project on a beer that went beyond simply providing another brewer with yeast?

 

Jasper: I have given yeast to numerous breweries, and most of them buy it now through Bright Yeast Labs. I have given a wild culture to Christian Layke of Gordon Biersch Rockville, Travis has used some wild cultures in some beers, and numerous other breweries in the area I have given small pitches to try or helped them isolate their own strain. I supplied the yeast for the Loudoun County collaboration we did some time ago. That was a fun beer. Every brewer brought something to the table. The collaborations we did and are doing beyond just the yeast part being involved are numerous as well – we have done several collaborations with Hellbender, they are good friends of ours. We did a collaboration with Legend in Richmond that was really a lot of fun. Legend and Lost Rhino are similar that they both have respect for high-quality beers that are more traditional. We have done two collaborations with Travis Tedrow of Gordon Biersch Navy Yard in DC, one at GB Navy Yard and one at Lost Rhino. We do a collaboration every year with the Westover Beer Garden, the HopStar. They have now started their own brewery “Sehkraft” and we did a collaboration with them as well! Our first international collaboration will be with Bierbrouwerij Jopen from Haarlem, the Netherlands. They have played a major role in the revival of the GABF-recognized Dutch beer style Kuyt, and we are planning to brew a variation on this beer in the future. We do a collaboration with Aaron Hermes, the winner of the Pilsner Urquell challenge, as we brew the Zlaty Rhino with him. We have done two collaborations with the homebrew club the Wort Hogs. For the second beer (Golden Hog) we used a wild strain that I isolated from Upstate NY. We are doing some collaborations with Lost Lagers and just brewed a Kulmbacher that will be poured at the National Homebrew Conference in Baltimore this year. I am hoping I did not forget one!

 

VCB: What have been some of your best moments, your worst moments, your most fun moments, and your least fun moments – the wacky and the weird. What you wish you could do more of and what you wouldn’t do again if given a million dollars?

 

Jasper: The good the bad and the ugly. The bad was that the Bonedusters yeast had a 2-plus week lag at 11 plato. It was crazy! It was not moving at all. I’m hypothesizing that the yeast did not like to make the switch from dextrose to maltose, but I am guessing here. It makes it hard to do it again. Of course I stocked the yeast again after it started back up, hoping to develop a way to overcome this in the future.  Another bad thing is that we had a boiler failure some months back, while we were brewing the Native Son. We mashed in, but it did not pass all of the rests, and what happened is that the wort soured before the conversion was complete. At a low pH the enzymes that normally convert the mash are not super active, so we created this turbid sour wort. We decided to just boil it and ferment it with a wild yeast that I isolated when we went hop picking in Madison County. The yeast seems really aggressive, and it has a typical farmhouse character, it reminds me a little of Arthur from Hill Farmstead. Alas the yeast stopped at 6 Plato, and the beer was turbid as half and half, so we loaded it in barrels and added a local sour culture that we got by spontaneous fermentation. Not really a super bad story but more like trying to make the best out of a bad situation I guess.

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