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‘Bumblebeer’ ferments with yeast strains from winged insects.

July 05, 2017

Most beers fall into one of two categories, lagers and ales, based on what type of yeast was used to ferment them. However, humans are surrounded by all kinds of yeast, plenty of which will gladly spark fermentation if given the chance. Sour beers have become increasingly popular, many of which are inoculated with funky yeast strains. Lambics are a specific style of sour beer allowed to ferment spontaneously based on whatever wild yeasts are in the air. Heck, Rogue Ales even makes a beer with yeast cultivated from one of its brewer’s beards. Meanwhile, a group of scientists at North Carolina State University have been hard at work making a product fermented with another bizarre yeast strain: “bumblebeer.”

“Bumblebeer” (also sometimes called “wasp beer”) is more than just a catchy name. These brews are just like “normal” beer in almost every way except that they are fermented using yeast that has been isolated from a bee or wasp. According to PBS, the idea of looking for brewer’s yeast on these bugs began back in 2014 when researchers at NC State were asked if they had any idea where to find some new beer brewing microbes. Led by applied ecologist Rob Dunn, his lab decided to focus on pollinating insects because of the amount of yeast found in flower nectar. Enlisting the help of environmental microbiologist Anne Madden, they were able to isolate two usable yeast strains, one from a bee and one from a wasp. These new strains were then sent over NC State’s research brew house (thankfully the university has one of those!) where they were used to ferment actual beers.

So why make a beer from bee or wasp yeast? According to NC State research brewer John Sheppard, these yeasts have a lot of versatility: Depending on the fermenting conditions, the results can have honey notes or create a lightly tangy sour beer, all without off flavors. “The adaptable nature to these wild yeast means if you change the conditions, they’re going to give you quite different flavor profiles in the beer,” he told PBS. Plus, they work more quickly than many other “wild” yeasts, finishing fermentation in just a couple weeks, an amount of time in line with typical commercial production.

Though PBS says that some “bumblebeer” has already been sold commercially in North Carolina, these new products have yet to make a major splash in the market. But for brewers interested in selling “wasp beer,” the yeasts are available for licensing. Thanks to the craft beer industry’s obsession with anything and everything new and unique, it’s probably only a matter of time before these buzzworthy brews are available near you.