John Sheppard of NC State University
John Sheppard of NC State University. (Photo by Becky Kirkland)

From industrial spaces to decades old warehouses and downtown storefronts, there are a variety of places to find freshly-made beer in Raleigh.

In 2016, one of the newest breweries to start sharing its product won’t be found in a commercial space, but on the campus of North Carolina State University, where its head brewer doubles as a bioprocessing professor. From his basement research lab in Schaub Hall, John Sheppard is teaching students the science of fermentation in his “cGMP Fermentation Operations” class.

But Sheppard and his researchers aren’t the only ones who get to tastes their spoils. This winter he received a permit to distribute beer to local taprooms and will be serving two beers at Raleigh’s World Beer Festival, a sour lambic-style beer and blonde ale. Previously, he could only serve a selection of beer made in his lab at official NC State functions after 5 p.m.

“Lots of scientific disciplines can feel obscure to people who can’t identify with a field of research,” Sheppard said. “With this, it’s not only satisfying because of the science, but the interaction with the public and their interest makes it rewarding.”

Sheppard’s passion and research lies in yeast management, a topic he notes many of the largest breweries may have under control thanks to big budgets and large staff, but is an increasingly important area for small and upstart breweries who may rely more on bootstrapping ingenuity. For some of Raleigh’s newest businesses, having an expert like Sheppard nearby has proven invaluable.

“I think 15 years ago, part of the magic of craft brewing was you’d never know what you’re going to get in consistency each time,” said Matt Corregan, director of quality control at Raleigh’s Nickelpoint Brewing Co. “But now people expect a quality product that consistently meets specifications.”

That anticipation is what led Corregan to connect with Sheppard in fall 2014, seeking Sheppard’s expertise on hop utilization, malt science and use of yeast as Nickelpoint’s team prepared to scale up from a 10-gallon homebrew system to a professional one making 620 gallons at a time.

“If you screw up a 10 gallon batch after spending 60 bucks, it’s not the end of the world,” Corregan said. “But when you’re spending $1,500 to $2,000 and have a razor thin budget, losing a batch really hurts.”

Which is why Sheppard’s 35 years of industry experience—from designing waste treatment facilities for breweries right after college to today’s experiments concocted on a 2.5-barrel system at NC State—can come in handy. In addition to understanding the ins and outs of the brewing process, Sheppard’s research makes him uniquely qualified to guide young brewers. Some of the more interesting creations he’s made include beer fermented with wild yeasts cultivated from wasps and bees.

At this year’s World Beer Festival, members of his lab are serving a lambic and blonde ale made from the same yeast culture, but displaying completely different flavors.

“It’s all a matter of manipulating the yeast’s environment in a way that forces these changes,” said Sheppard, adding that his process of creating that outcome is currently a secret kept only for his research. “Brewers need to know what to expect from their yeast and this research will help create a fuller picture.”

Try NC State Beers at World Beer Festival Raleigh

Want to taste beers brewed with proprietary wild yeast at NC State’s brewery lab? These two beers will be served at the World Beer Festival Raleigh on April 2.

American Wild Lambic: Made from a blend of malted wheat and barley with a very low hopping rate, the beer is moderately sour with a fresh fruity aroma, a slightly sweet finish and no bitterness.    

Bumble Blonde: Made with a yeast strain isolated from a bumble bee. Based on a traditional all-malt ale recipe, it’s moderately hopped and is only slightly sour with a fruity aroma and a hint of honey.