Of Yeast and Men—Dr. Ian Willis: Scientist, Brewer
When Dr. Ian Willis, professor of biochemistry and of systems & computational biology at Einstein, began homebrewing beer 11 years ago, he did not foresee it becoming both a treasured hobby and a catalyst for a social, environmental project in his neighborhood.
Ian arrived at Einstein 31 years ago after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of New South Wales, in his native Australia. Rising from junior to senior faculty, he first used yeast in his research. Budding yeast served as a model organism that allowed him to examine how nutrients and environmental stress affect how cells regulate transcription, the process through which cells convert DNA to RNA. His yeast work has recently led to studies in mice where changes in transcription reduced body fat and improved health span.
During the past decade, however, his work with yeast has not been limited to research. Since 2008, he has been fermenting yeast in his spare time, developing his craft as a homebrewer.
Behold the Mighty Yeast
As a biochemist, Ian is a connoisseur of yeast and proudly professes his affinity for this unicellular organism. “I am very conscious about the benefits of yeast,” he said. “I teach yeast genetics and I always impress upon students the importance of yeast for humans through the ages as well as its importance for understanding eukaryotic biology.”
His forays into brewing beer began with a commercial kit that included all the necessary ingredients. “It was the simplest way to begin. Anyone with a basic knowledge of aseptic technique can do this and will be rewarded; my first batch was outstanding.”
He currently brews in five-gallon batches, producing about 30 gallons of beer a year, and while he still occasionally uses commercial kits, he now mostly brews from scratch, starting with grains that he sources online or from specialty stores.
From Grain to Glass
He begins by milling grains (typically malted barley), followed by “mashing”, where the grains are soaked in hot water to activate the enzymes that break down starch into fermentable sugars. He then strains the resulting sugar-rich liquid, called the “wort,” in order to separate the mash from the residual grain in a process known as “lautering.”
Ian then boils the wort with hops, sometimes sourced from local vines, as well as other additives—depending on the beer style—that help determine the color, flavor, and aroma of the beer.
Next, he combines the yeast with the cooled wort to start the fermentation process, turning the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Once this is complete and the yeast has settled out, the beer is decanted into stainless steel kegs—Ian uses repurposed cola syrup tanks, a popular choice among homebrewers, over bottles. A little priming sugar is added for carbonation and after a week, the beer is ready to drink, although an extra “aging” period can improve quality and add complexity to the flavor.
Ian brews a variety of beer styles, including porters, stouts, lagers, and pilsners, although he favors ales because they take less time to brew. “I tend to brew heavier beers like porters and stouts in fall and winter, when the body is more attuned to rich satisfying beers,” he said.
Brewing for the Environment
Ian also volunteers his time along with others in his community during twice-yearly work days at Glenwood Lake, a six-acre lake and park near his home in New Rochelle. On one such occasion 11 years ago—when he was still new to home brewing—he invited a couple of other volunteers back to his house after they’d finished working.
“I offered them some of my home-made beer and they quite enjoyed it,” he said. “It turned out we all knew other neighbors who were also homebrewers. So we decided to get all the brewers together to hold an Oktoberfest event for the neighborhood."
A tradition was born, and the neighborhood Oktoberfest is now an annual event, where even local politicians stop in to have a taste of beer and chat with constituents. "We share our beers with neighbors and friends and also use the occasion to raise awareness and collect donations for our local non-profit organization to support environmental, water-quality and other projects at the lake."
An Age-Old Tradition
Homebrewing is more than a hobby for Ian. “It’s a special feeling when you realize that you’re engaging in one of humanity’s oldest, continuously practiced traditions,” he said.
The earliest known uses of fermentation and the earliest recorded evidence of brewing dates back to the Sumarian civilization approximately 8,000 years ago. Historically, fermented drinks served as a critical, primary source of uncontaminated liquid, since alcohol retards spoilage by preventing the growth of germs. People in earlier times used to brew in open containers, unaware that yeast spores present in the air and on the grain were responsible for the fermentation process.
Then, in the 1850’s, Louis Pasteur observed bacteria and yeast in cultures together while studying beer and wine spoilage. Germ theory was championed and pure yeast strains were soon isolated, starting a revolution in science, medicine, and food production. The mass production of beer and leavened bread followed. Yeast quickly became a valuable research model organism, responsible for the birth of biochemistry, and credited with some of humanity's major scientific discoveries.
For a scientist and a brewer, this brings it all together for Ian. “Today, we carry on this age-old brewing tradition, essentially using the same methods, but armed with new knowledge and appreciation for the humble yeast and its mighty benefits to humanity,” he said. “I brew for fun and enjoyment, to socialize, and to give back to my community.”
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Posted on: Thursday, January 09, 2020