by GREG SIERING
Back in 2013, when Matt Bochman arrived in Bloomington, breweries across the country were beginning to show interest in producing beers using locally grown ingredients. Malt and hops were accessible. “Yeast was the missing local ingredient,” Bochman says. The 38-year-old assistant professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at Indiana University does his core research in the basic science of cancer. But it turns out that Bochman was the perfect guy to help brewers solve their missing-ingredient problem because his other research interest is studying the strains of yeast used to create beer.
In order to make an ultra-local beer possible, Bochman began taking samples from local sources—trees, fruits, and flowers—and isolating the kinds of microorganisms that would produce quality beer. In addition to partnering with area breweries and distilleries, Bochman started a small company called Wild Pitch Yeast, which sells a small bank of unique yeasts derived from Bloomington sources, as well as “yeast hunting kits” that allow customers to submit samples from anywhere, which Bochman’s team then uses to identify promising yeast strains.
In addition to his yeast-hunting work, in 2016 Bochman solved a problem Upland Brewing Co. was having with its sour ales. The high-alcohol content and low pH of the sour ales created an environment that shocked the yeast and kept it from doing the fermentation work that usually carbonates the beer in the bottles. Bochman’s team identified the biochemical problem and developed a process that allows the yeast to slowly adapt to the acidic environment and once again ferment the beer.
Bochman is pleased he was able to help solve an industry-wide problem, a solution that led to the lab’s first publication on food microbiology. And while he has a list of fun fermentation projects he’s worked on—and he acknowledges being “beer famous”—Bochman’s greatest accomplishments come from his cancer research. His lab is staffed by IU students who work on both his DNA and yeast projects, and he takes great pride in their success.
Bochman says Bloomington has been a great personal and professional fit for both him and his wife, Julia van Kessel, an assistant professor of biology at IU. It helps that Bloomington’s a beer town. If he starts talking about his research on DNA helicases, people might nod politely, he says, but if he starts talking about isolating new yeast strains for beer, people get engaged quickly. “It’s nice to talk to neighbors about what I do, and fermentation is something people can relate to,” Bochman says.