Magazine Feature / People

Alum pitches yeast at beer festival

DU alum Owen Lingley works the crowd at Denver's Great American Beer Festival with Wyeast company owner Jenny Kreft-Logsdon, left, and customer relations representative Candy Abercrombie. Photo: Nathan Solheim

Owen Lingley’s business card says his job title is “VIP.” And at the 29th annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver, he’s a very important person indeed.

Lingley will be busy pitching the merits of his company’s yeast to 49,000 beer lovers and brewers streaming through the Colorado Convention Center in search of the country’s most distinctive porters, bocks, stouts, lagers and ales. Yeast is a key ingredient in beer — it’s what transforms what amounts to a sweet grain broth to the foamy fun libation called beer.

Lingley (BS economics ’01) works for the Hood River, Ore. based Wyeast Labs Inc., which supplies yeast to 50 percent of the craft breweries in the United States and to tens of thousands of homebrewers around the world.

So it makes sense for Lingley and the rest of the Wyeast crew to tap the festival’s more than 2,200 beers and 460 breweries.    

“We think it’s important to support the industry,” Lingley says. “Without good beer, we don’t exist.”

Lingley is quite happy to be working in the beer industry. He took his position after working for Wyeast’s packaging provider for five years. The job takes him around the country to beer festivals, brewpubs and homebrew stores, convincing brewers of all varieties to use his company’s yeast in their beer. And as an avid homebrew and craft beer aficionado himself, Lingley can talk with authority because he uses the strains in his own brews.

“[Owen] brings a new energy and ideas to our company,” says Jenny Kreft-Logsdon, Wyeast owner and general manager. “It’s nice to have that energy in our company.”

Over Wyeast’s history, it has steadily become an industry leader. It produces dozens of strains of yeast for use in beer, wine, cider, mead and even sake.

Yeast is a key ingredient in beer because it converts sugar into alcohol. There are hundreds of different yeast strains, and besides producing alcohol, yeast can affect other facets of beer as well.

Ask Lingley a question about the benefits of his company’s yeast and his answer will sound like it came from a microbiologist. 

“We have a very good technical staff, too,” Lingley says. “You learn a lot around the lunch table.”

Though his company is focused mainly on the brewing and homebrewing industries, it occasionally will get a request to develop a proprietary yeast strain for use outside the suds business.

Recently, the company received a request from a customer in the Caribbean for a yeast strain that will convert the sugar in rotting bananas to ethanol. There are yeasts out there that do this, Lingley says, but the customer wanted a more efficient strain.

“The idea is it converts more of it to sugar so there’s less processing on the back end,” Lingley says.

Most of Lingley’s job, however, lies with brewers. Craft breweries have methodically taken over the beer market over the past 20 years, and Colorado has become the biggest beer-producing state in the union thanks to an abundance of brewpubs, microbreweries, independents and the daddy of them all, Coors. (Now Miller Coors.)

And in Colorado, Lingley says, there’s a healthy homebrew business with many homebrew stores and clubs that cater to the hobbyist.   

“There are now a lot of good quality ingredients, and things that were only available to breweries are now available to homebrewers,” he says. “People like to try to make the beers they like to drink or come up with their own recipes.”

 As craft brewing and homebrewing continue to grow, Lingley is perched in the middle of it all. And as a person who went to school in Colorado but lives in another brewing hotbed, Oregon, the inevitable question arises: Which state has better beer? “Oregon — just because we have more breweries,” he answers. “There are 40 breweries in Portland. And Hood River, where we’re located, has the highest concentration of breweries per capita in the world.”

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