Jasper Akerboom started brewing beer when he was studying microbiology in his home country of the Netherlands.
The 35-year-old came to the United States six years ago. He’s now engineering proteins that make it easier for neuroscientists to study neuron activity in the human brain at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn.
And he’s brewing more beer than ever.
In fact, fans of Ashburn’s Lost Rhino Brewing Company likely have already tasted some of Akerboom’s work, although it wasn’t the beer he brews in his garage. Akerboom’s special contribution to Lost Rhino is bacteria that occur naturally in the air.
Yeast is in the air around us. It’s everywhere. Brewers typically try to avoid “wild” yeast making contact with their beer because it can alter with the fermentation process and change the taste.
“What you usually try to do is keep wild strains away form your brewery,” Favio Garcia, Lost Rhino co-owner and director of brewing operations, said. “The strain that we get comes from a lab in the West Coast.”
Akerboom has harvested yeast that is native to Ashburn. He harvested 10-12 different strains, in fact. One of those strains was used to brew Lost Rhino’s Wild Farmwell Wheat Ale, which was on tap this summer.
“I took about 10 different strains, and two were OK,” Akerboom said. “The rest were really awful ones.”
Before tasting those different yeasts, Akerboom went to a Lost Rhino open house, where he met Garcia and told him about his work with local yeast. Since most beer is made with yeast from a laboratory, Garcia was intrigued.
Beer typically gets its flavor from hops, malted barley and other items thrown in the mash—some brewers use fruits and spices—but yeast can also have a huge influence on how the beer tastes.
Once Akerboom and Garcia found yeast they didn’t think was disgusting, they made a test batch of beer—about 600 gallons, Akerboom said—before rolling out the commercial batch for Lost Rhino.
Akerboom said he gets the same feeling after the protein indicators he develops help scientists in their research as he does when someone enjoys a beer he helps create.
“That’s the most rewarding, when people really like it,” he said. “You see them ordering another one, so they’re not telling you they like it just to be nice.”
Akerboom said his science career is fulfilling, but, given the opportunity, he would leap at the chance to open his own brewery.
“I would love to make it a profession,” he said. “As a microbiologist, it’s so much easier to read books about brewing.”
As for what’s next from the partnership between Akerboom and Lost Rhino, this summer the second strain Akerboom isolated will be used, and combined with blackberries that were frozen from last August to create a blackberry wheat beer, Garcia said.
Akerboom has begun isolating more strains for new and wilder inventions, many of which he will brew himself from his own garage. Those who wish to follow his developments can read his blog at www.jaapie.org.
Although cultivating wild yeast strains isn’t going to be the future of major brewing companies—a 20 percent success rate doesn’t seem like something in which Anheuser-Busch would be interested—in the world of craft beer, which favors small batches and innovation, the world, more specifically the air, is full of possibilities.