HOUSTON — There’s an ambitious new experiment coming from Houston-area craft breweries this spring. Twenty three breweries have joined in to each brew a batch of beer using the same yeast strain throughout the project. Called the Houston Daisy Chain Experiment, the yeast will begin its journey at Southern Star Brewing Co. in Conroe, Texas, then be harvested by the other participating breweries until they’ve all brewed and released their unique beers to the public. Releases are expected to begin February 2018, and continue throughout the spring.
The project is the idea of Sam Wright, head brewer at Southern Star Brewing. He was inspired by the openness of the modern craft brewing industry, and an old but forgotten method of obtaining yeast before brewing was industrialized.
“For centuries, before people even understood what yeast was responsible for, brewers would share the sludge on the bottom of their beer barrels with neighbors, or use it for their own future batches of beer. Without this practice, beer as we know it today might not exist. And this type of sharing is very common among today’s craft brewers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve either been helped or have helped a fellow brewer who needed a bag of grain, a box of hops, or some yeast to make their beer. There’s a spirit of unity among craft breweries where we all want to see each other succeed.”
The idea sat in the back of Mr. Wright’s mind for months, as he thought of all the reasons that a project such as this would crash and burn. “What happens if one of the breweries gets an infection in their yeast, and spreads it to other breweries? Then you’ve got breweries who’ve lost hundreds or thousands of dollars in raw materials for a beer they can’t release, and have to eliminate an infection that someone else was responsible for. Could it turn into animosity amongst the breweries? Would there be brewers less willing to share raw materials or insight into their processes? What happens if one brewery has a slow fermentation, and holds up the production schedule of several others depending on that yeast to be harvested? There are a thousand ways for this experiment to derail itself, so I shelved it and focused elsewhere.”
Then in August, 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast, destroying several coastal towns, and dropping more rain on Houston than any other flooding event on record. “The hurricane was a strange time for my family, as we were effectively trapped in our home for four days watching local news coverage of how bad the flooding was, and showing Houstonians being rescued by their neighbors. Our home was safe and never threatened by flooding, but we couldn’t get out and do anything to help others. It drove me crazy.” When the flooding had mostly subsided, Wright found a brewery close to his home that was holding a relief drive, and loaded up his truck with needed supplies. “There were hundreds of relief drives around town, but I knew I wanted to go through a local brewery, and Eureka Heights was close to us. When I arrived, there were so many vehicles trying to donate supplies that I couldn’t unload what I brought for about twenty minutes. The line was too long. Inside, there were dozens of people helping to sort out the donations that kept coming in. After being there for an hour, the volunteers who were driving donations to George R Brown Convention Center were told to wait, because they couldn’t process all of the donations that were coming in. “I remember watching national news coverage of the relief efforts, and they were commenting about how surprising and wonderful it was that Houston was doing so much to help other Houstonians. And I thought, that’s not surprising at all, we’ve always done this.” And it made him think that his idea of brewers sharing yeast just might work out.
“The community reaction to Hurricane Harvey and the Astros winning the World Series a couple of months later made me very proud to be a lifelong Houstonian. Houston’s always been a great city, but we always feel overshadowed. It seems like all people know about Houston is oil and gas and NASA. Showing the world how to help out your neighbor and finally being world champions again brought an energy to the city I haven’t felt before.” Wright decided to try to harness this new energy, and presented his idea to a handful of local breweries. Almost everyone who heard about it was excited to see how it would work out.
He reached out to all of the Houston area members of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, and lined up twenty three breweries to each make their own beer using the same type of yeast. “I wanted each brewery to come up with their own beer and market it their own way. I only asked that people use the yeast, and to use the name and logo on the package or tap handle so customers would know it’s part of the project. If I tried to assign certain beer styles to certain breweries or tell them how much to make, it would’ve been easier for me to plan it out, but then we’d lose the creativity of all of the breweries involved, which was the point. To let everybody get creative with what they’re producing, I hope that there will be more ownership of the project by everyone involved, and lets them show off what they can brew.”
To the best of his knowledge, this is the largest group of breweries that have worked together collaboratively in the modern craft brewing era. “I’ve always been impressed that our industry has so many collaboration beers, brewed by two or more breweries. I can’t think of many other industries that would consider it. That’s one thing that keeps the craft brewing community special, even as it evolves. I’m very excited to try all the beers that the twenty three breweries come up with, and to give the craft beer drinkers of the Houston area an opportunity to be a part of our collaborative experiment.”
The breweries involved in the Houston Daisy Chain Experiment are Southern Star, 8th Wonder, Eureka Heights, Copperhead, 11 Below, Sigma, Braman, Lone Pint, Town in City, Bearded Fox, Brash, No Label, BAKFISH, Texas Leaguer, Buffalo Bayou, Platypus, City Acre, Holler, Fetching Lab, Whole Foods Brewing, Spindletap, Blackwater Draw, and New Republic.