beer

Doctorate candidate Michael Soo holds a sample of his home-brewed beer. | Courtesy of Sasha Certo-Ware

A visit to Dock Street Brewery on the corner of 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue is a must for anyone who’s looking for a fix of fresh craft beer and oven-baked pizza served with a side of alternative vibe.

Among beer enthusiasts in the area, Dock Street has a reputation for being experimental and creative with their brews. And this December, Dock Street has plans to introduce beer that has been brewed with a special local twist — a true West Philadelphia concoction, if you will — with the help of Penn Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics doctorate candidate Michael Soo.

The secret behind Dock Street’s upcoming West Philadelphia beer? Local yeast strains.

For those not familiar with the art of beer brewing, yeast is an essential ingredient in the process of fermentation. When added to the base malt liquid called wort, yeast converts sugar in the liquid into alcohol and carbon dioxide, giving the beer its alcohol content and its carbonation.

While most breweries stick to using set, pure strains of yeast to brew classic ales and lagers, Dock Street brewing expert Sasha Certo-Ware and Soo teamed up to collect and cultivate wild yeast strains from West Philadelphia through a wild fermentation process.

They first placed shallow trays of wort in three locations around West Philadelphia — Soo’s house on 48th Street, the brewery and Clark Park — and left them out overnight to let the yeast and bacteria floating in the air permeate the wort. Afterwards, Soo brought back the samples to Penn, isolated a particular yeast strain in the lab and grew it into a pure culture.

“The idea was to capture spirit of West Philadelphia, the attitude and the mentality in the beer, and this is a fun way to do it,” Certo-Ware said. “It’s a tribute to the area around us.”

Soo and Certo-Ware expect the beer brewed with the West Philadelphia yeast to have a pleasantly sour and tart taste. “I brewed a large test batch of beer to get an idea of what the yeast would do. The resulting beer was intensely fruity, with a strong ripe peach and stonefruit ester character, a hint of white pepper phenols, full bodied with soft mouthfeel and a hint of residual sweetness,” Soo said. “It’s a really distinct fermentation profile that’s unlike any other pure strain of yeast I’ve encountered.”

Soo said while he’s only been collaborating with the Dock Street crew for about a year now, his love for the brewery goes way back. Soo became a regular customer after moving into the neighborhood, and became acquainted with the Dock Street crew when he won a home-brewing contest at the brewery about four years ago.

Besides the West Philadelphia beer, Soo also recently worked with Dock Street to make a spicy rye-based saison aged in an old bourbon barrel with sour cherries and orange peel. While not available to customers just yet, Soo says it is already one of his favorite beers.

“Dock Street beers are products that the people behind the brewery love and care about. They do these weird projects like this wild yeast program because they genuinely care about making interesting beers that they are proud to share,” Soo said. “It’s not just a business to them and that’s why I love going and working with them on all kinds of projects.”

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