Biotech Meets Beer: SouthYeast Labs Brews Up Success

Greenville startup, SouthYeast Labs, is brewing up success with their “biotech meets beer” business that engineers unique regional yeast strains for local breweries. The two-man startup, founded by Clemson University students, Even Skjervold and David Thornton, recently beat out seven other startups to win Dig South’s Wild Pitch for Students competition and has now turned to crowd funding to outfit a new lab.

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Even Skjervold, SouthYeast Labs Co-Founder, holds the check from winning Dig South’s Wild Pitch for Students.

DIG SOUTH WILD PITCH WINNER

After pitching their startup idea to a panel of judges, SouthYeast Labs walked away with the $2,500 grand prize, an offer from one of the judges to double their prize, and another $2,500 from an angel investor after the event. In all, SouthYeast Labs won $7,500 thanks to their exposure at Dig South. When asked how it feels to win the competition, Skjervold replied, “Winning any event feels great, especially when it’s something this big with tough competition. We look forward to building out critical pieces of the company using the prize money.”

THE IDEA

Skjervold, originally from Norway, is completing a master’s degree program in bioengineering, as well as a Master of Business Administration in entrepreneurship and innovation at Clemson University. He met Thornton in a class called “Science of Beer,” where the idea for SouthYeast Labs was born. “I wanted to brew a clone of one of my favorite beers. And to make sure I had the right yeast, I cultured the yeast out of the bottom of the bottle rather than trying to buy the right thing,” said Skjervold.

When that worked out, he and other students wondered where else they could find wild yeast. He and Thornton started capturing yeast from fruits and flowers around Clemson’s research farms and used the yeast to brew beer. They discovered that some of the beers exhibited the flavors from the fruits they had captured the yeast from. The team distributed the beer to local home brewers and breweries, such as Thomas Creek Brewery, and they all instantly loved the intense and unique flavor profiles.

CROWD FUNDING

Once SouthYeast Labs grew into a commercial venture by incorporating in December 2013, it could no longer use Clemson University’s laboratories. They moved operation from the university into Thornton’s dining room, converting it into a small-scale incubator lab until they can get into a more permanent home. The next step for SouthYeast Labs now is to raise capital to scale its business into a new professional lab. The SouthYeast team is utilizing the school’s crowd funding site, Clemson Ideas, in hopes of raising $30,000 for a new facility. “We’ve reached our capacity by a whole lot until we can get into a proper commercial setting,” said Skjervold.

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David Thornton, SouthYeast Labs Co-Founder, sampling yeast from an old Jack Daniels barrel.

THE PROCESS

Yeast is the most important ingredient in the beer brewing process. During fermentation, the yeast eats the sugars extracted from the malt to produce carbon dioxide, alcohol, and compounds, which affect the flavor and fragrance of the beer. For example, the distinct banana and clove flavors in Hefeweizen are a result of specific strains of yeast. The fun part about wild yeast is that some of these strains eat different types of sugars. More complex sugar types can affect the body of the beer, making it lighter or creamier.

Capturing local flavors is the essence of their work, and the SouthYeast Labs team explores farms in Clemson, Tennessee, and Georgia, looking for fruits, flowers, and other things that yeast might be living on. The essence of the yeast depends on where it was captured. A peach yeast in Georgia will be different from a peach yeast in South Carolina. The yeast samples are collected and brought back to the laboratory and put through a rigorous, multi-step “yeast boot camp” to produce a single yeast strain ready for brewing. SouthYeast Labs have been able to capture the flavors of fruits and flowers such as peaches, blueberries, and honeysuckles.

Once a good alcohol-fermenting yeast is discovered, the team produces a batch of really light flavored beer and pitches the yeast in various fermenters. The beer is tasted to characterize what flavor each yeast strain produces, and the best ones are added to their catalog and offered to breweries and home brewers. “We ask the breweries if they have a style in mind that they would like to make using wild yeast, and we can find one of our yeast strains that has those characteristics and flavors,” says Skjervold. SouthYeast Labs currently has a catalogue of twenty-two distinct, regionally unique yeast strains.

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Batch of beer split and fermented with different yeast strains.

Wild yeast has its advantages over commercial yeast. First, it produces a wider range of flavor profiles that are suited for more styles of beer, especially those that are undersized in South Carolina, such as sour or funky flavors. Second, is the story aspect of the beer, which Skjervold believes is just as important as the flavor: “We’ve had breweries approach us being more interested in where the yeast came than what it tastes like. Most of the yeast strains sold by the big suppliers have been around for decades and don’t really have any origin stories tied to them anymore. All of our yeast strains, we can tell you exactly where they came from. So we pull yeast from a historical site, you can incorporate that into your beer and build whatever narrative around it. ”

Next on their roadmap, SouthYeast Labs will continue to rollout yeast to different breweries, attend various craft beer events, and work on a new investment plan.

As a bioengineering student, Skjervold believes the surge of biotech will play an important role in the tech scene as well as the beer industry moving forward, “As technology gets smaller, we don’t really have anything that lets us manipulate things at that level at least not on a mass production scale. It’s definitely a difficult technology and very expensive to develop, but the returns once you do are great both for the companies that succeed and society in general because scientific progress makes life better.”

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