Scott Hale wrangled on land marked by dust and spiky trees.
A visual artist by trade and an aficionado of fermentation, Hale, of Twentynine Palms, sought something microscopic and, critically, something that had to find him. All he could do was make a trap. His bait: a golden murky slurry of water and sorghum.
His quest? The holy grail of beer, the ingredient that imprints both its flavor and its origin.
Hale hunts yeast.
“It’s mad science,” Hale said. “But science that you can eat.”
After he set out his wheat-colored concoction in a wide-mouth bowl for potential yeast spores at a hunting spot he’d picked in Joshua Tree, Hale set about making his own breakfast — rice, beans and morel mushrooms. Then he waited, hoping the wind would blow a single-celled fungi — one that could create alcohol — his way.
He wanted a one-of-a-kind flavor for his homemade beer.
What he found in the desert would certainly be unique.
Wranglers on a mission
Hale is just one soldier in a fast-growing army, men and women from ZIP codes across America who are willing — in some cases eager — to work as amateur scientists and yeast wranglers in the bigger mission of creating better craft beer.
To understand this, you need some background.
First, yeast is a natural fungi, a single-celled organisms ferried by breeze or gale from one sugary home to another. (That white stuff that covers grapes in your fridge? That’s yeast.) Also, yeast is pretty much everywhere; you’re probably breathing some yeast as you read this, and some some yeast almost certainly is inside you, assisting your digestion.
But not all yeast is brewer’s yeast, the stuff that’s good for making beer. Most brewers’ yeast in use by commercial breweries traces back to Belgium, Germany and England, places with strong beer making traditions. These domesticated yeasts produce consistent beer, but consistency can sometimes mean uninteresting. Capturing wild yeast involves exposing beer to the…