Dailey Crafton walked out the back door of his Brooklyn apartment and into the garden, a narrow plot enclosed by a steel fence, in search of a zucchini blossom. Amid the strawberry plants and dirt, he found the orange flower he was looking for and plucked it—it was the final ingredient in his latest batch of beer.
But as he walked back inside, he noticed ants marching out from within the petals. Crafton, a graphic designer and burly beer brewer, dropped the zucchini blossom into his unfermented beer. He hoped the wild microorganisms living on the petals would produce unique, tangy flavors.
Then he had an idea.
"Ah, what the heck," Crafton thought. "I'll throw the ants in too."
He'd heard that bumblebees carry natural microorganisms able to not only ferment beer, but trigger bright, tart, even juicy flavors.
So, he figured, why not ants? And he added them alive.
For sour beer brewers bugs are gold—but the term "bugs" generally doesn't refer to insects when it comes to brewing. Rather, most brewers use bugs of the smaller sort—microorganisms like yeast and bacteria present in the air, as well as on fruits and vegetables that ferment and acidify everything from beer and wine to bread and cheese.
While strains vary, breweries generally use one or two species of yeast—ale or lager—which they buy in bulk, identified and lab-tested for consistency. Some breweries buy beneficial bacteria to intentionally sour beer, and fewer still actually harvest wild microorganisms by exposing unfermented beer to the air.
Dailey Crafton at the Brooklyn Kitchen before a brewing class. Photo via Dailey Crafton
But lately, brewers have been interested in branching out by harvesting the bugs inside bugs. The idea might sound like a gimmick dreamt up by locavore marketing strategists over a few too many pints, but scientists have begun experimenting with an entirely new source for fermentation.
Crafton, who teaches brewing at The Brooklyn Kitchen, first learned that insects carry beneficial microbes on their bodies and inside their bellies from Jeff Mello, who's cataloging yeast and bacteria from every zip code in the United States.
Enthusiasts send Mello, the founder of Bootleg Biology, samples from their neighborhood which he saves and records. One homebrewer sent a sample of yeast collected after submerging a bee in wort, which is unfermented beer.
"I believe bees process flower nectar with their mouths, which is why you'll also see a lot of yeast naturally in unpasteurized honey," he said. "We have his bee yeast banked. It makes awesome beer."
Scientists have known for years that insects carry fermentation-friendly bugs. But it wasn't until a few years ago that anyone asked whether it would be any good for beer.
Photo via Dailey Crafton.
In 2014, researchers at North Carolina State University tried to identify and isolate strains of yeast living inside wasps. To test the strains, wasps were pulverized and the remains placed in a nutrient-rich solution for microbes to grow, according to researcher Dr. Anne Madden.
After genetic tests to make sure it was safe, they removed the yeast and began dropping it in wort. But making the leap to brewing was easier said than done, according to Madden. Although yeast contributes as much as half of beer's flavor, Madden said not all yeasts make good beer. Most can't. Either the alcohol they produce kills them at around 1 or 2 percent alcohol, or they produce flavors like "horse blanket" that most beer drinkers aren't interested in.
So when the beer turned out not just palatable, but good, Madden was surprised. In some beer styles they brewed, the yeast produced flavor compounds called esters that tasted like apple cider and honey.
"It was surprisingly tart without any off-flavors such as 'funk' that are typically expected from wild yeast beers," Madden said. "When we debuted that first Wasp Beer at the World Beer Festival in Raleigh, NC, the crowds loved it and we ran out before the festival was over."
North Carolina State University researchers went from wasp, to culturing the microbes inside, to isolating a specific yeast used for brewing beer. Photo via Dr. Anne Madden.
But the buzz circling the wasp yeast is that it also acidifies beer, turning it sour. The beer was tart, with ripe fruit flavors. Typically, sour beer is made with a cocktail of bacterias that can take months, even years. But the wasp yeast could make sour beer in just a few weeks with just yeast, reducing risk of bringing bacteria or other "contaminant" yeasts into the brewery.
READ MORE: Gin and Tonic Tastes Better with Ants
Madden said they've found yeast in ants, but so far have only released beer with strains selected from bumblebees. She and a bioprocessing professor at the university have since patented the yeast and created a company to sell it to brewers.
But if you're thinking of going out and brewing with your own insects, Madden says think again. Their lab uses genetic, biological, and chemical tests to ensure the yeasts don't carry pathogens dangerous to people.
"Insects are like jungles at the microscopic level—they can carry hundreds of species of microorganisms inside of them," Madden said.
Crafton's brews have yet to kill anyone, but he also doesn't know exactly what's in them. This past fall he served his ant beer, called Funky Fresh, at the Brooklyn Kitchen to a crowd of locals hell-bent on something different. It was a hazy, orange, and fruity, and except for hangovers the next day, the only other surprise was how good it turned out: clean tasting, and slightly peppery.
Crafton, 35, considers himself a member of the niche forage beer movement, where brewers harvest their ingredients from nature. But while most are like Scratch Brewing Company in rural Illinois, which is on a farm that grows most of its ingredients near the Shawnee National Forest, Crafton lives in Brooklyn.
That hasn't stopped him from harvesting wild yeast from the air, or sticking a log he found at a park in Brooklyn into unfermented beer. It's not for a lack of money, resources, or knowledge. Crafton loves doing it. "A lot of places say they have wild beer. I go further: mine's uncontrolled."
His plan is to only brew with a log from here on out, and after recently buying barrels from a nearby brewery, he plans on opening his own brewery in Yonkers.
"I don't mean to be romantic, but being unpredictable is the point," he said over a sample of log beer at a recent tasting at his house. Between batches the log rests on a shelf in his refrigerator, so the yeast living on the surface can incubate; it now looks white, as though frosted, as it's teaming with microbes.
"I tell brewers I made a beer with a log and they ask, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' If I was on the [reality television] show Naked and Afraid, and they dropped me in the middle of nowhere and gave me one item to survive, I'd pick a log."