What I Do: Mark Schwarz, co-founder/owner, Omega Yeast

Omega Yeast is a classic example of the “guy behind the guy.” The company supplies one of the crucial components of the beer-making process – yeast, which drives fermentation– to many of your favorite local breweries, like Perennial Artisan Ales and Rockwell Brewing Co., as well as brewers nation-wide. Soon after co-founding the company in Chicago, co-owner Mark Schwarz moved back to his hometown of St. Louis in 2015 to open a second base of operations. Since then, Omega Yeast has continued to grow, supplying yeast to over 5,000 professional and home brewers, expanding their staff to 45 employees, and developing new strains to help expand brewers’ creative capacities. Here, Schwarz sheds some light on this mysterious corner of the beer industry.

“Brewers like to say, ‘I just make yeast food, and the yeast does the rest of the work.’ So it ends up being a very intimate relationship or partnership with brewers because they spend all this time and money to make this yeast food. They use malted barley or wheat or grain, hops – all these ingredients. And if the yeast doesn’t work, they’re done – they don’t have a beer.”

“When my partner Lance Shaner – he has a doctorate in microbiology – and I started eight years ago, we thought we could do yeast better and be a little more customer-centric. We found that a lot of brewers are kind of anxious and neurotic because they were scared their yeast wasn’t going to work. That’s how, from my side of the business, we got into it; we realized that really what brewers want is the peace of mind that the yeast is working.”

“Yeast has a very short life span of how viable they’re going to be. So instead of making a large quantity that sits in a cooler until somebody orders it, we do the opposite; we don’t even start making the yeast – propagating is the scientific term – until the order comes in. So we essentially reverse engineer our processes and our schedule based on the brewers’ schedule so they get the freshest yeast possible.”
“Yeast are asexual, but we’ve forced them to mate to create new yeast strains that have never existed. We go through and brew with the children until we find one child that has good traits of both parents.”

“For our newest one, we used a new biological tool, CRISPR, it’s kind of like a scalpel. We can take DNA from this strain that does some cool stuff and put it in this other one, and basically come up with new yeast that can produce strawberry or banana or all kinds of different flavors. So we’re now expanding the tools for brewers in addition to helping them sleep at night.”

“Generally, yeast eat sugars as an input. They excrete, or output, alcohol, carbon dioxide and esters. Ester is really what gives a beer its taste. So we sell a hundred-something yeast strains, and each strain produces different esters and has different behaviors and all kinds of things.”

“I’m originally from St. Louis and got my bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering. I got my first job out in L.A. working for Boeing. I quickly realized I was not a corporate person, and I ended up in law school for some reason; I just thought that would be interesting. To do patent law you need an engineering or science background, so that was just a natural fit.”

“My partner and I were summer interns together at this law firm in Chicago, and we ended up working there after law school. Another patent attorney we were working with was starting a brewery and was complaining about yeast. He was like, ‘These guys are yahoos, they’re all out West. It’s just so ridiculous.’ My partner Lance came into my office, shut the door, and he’s like, ‘I think we could make yeast.’ That was it.”

“He didn’t know anything about business or finance or branding. I did not know anything about yeast. So we taught each other and started the business at night. We rented our first space from the Johnnie Brocks equivalent in Chicago, a Halloween costume warehouse. It was kind of freaky – we’d work there from maybe 8 p.m. to midnight or 1 a.m. every night. I’d get home at 1:30 or 2, wake up at 5:30 and do it all over again.”

“We’re coming out with new strains all the time – that gives brewers more tools in their toolbox so they can take these new flavors and keep creating new beers. At the end of the day, it’s self-serving; we like to drink good beer, so we like giving them more tools to keep pushing the boundaries.”