Ruth Leary of Fermentis

Of the four main ingredients in beer, one sits undoubtedly as the unsung hero. Yeast, often taking a backseat to hops, is the one ingredient which turns the sticky, sweet liquid, into an alcoholic drink that can be either delicately clean, or one full of character.

Ruth Leary, the regional sales manager for Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea at global yeast company Fermentis, has an infectious enthusiasm for beer, and yeast.

“If you think about any other beverage that’s not fermented, you’re literally just adding the same repetitive ingredients –  you’re just formulating a beverage. Whereas beer is really a living thing that is created by a living organism. And that is not easy.”

Leary caught the beer bug – and her particular passion for yeast – while studying food science at the University of Otago under the late Jean-Pierre Dufour, also known as JP.

Leary says Dufour opened her eyes to beer. “I didn’t have an appreciation for beer until we started doing beer tastings with JP in class, and he would be using the tastings to explain to us about the yeast character,” she says.

“We had Belgian beer tastings most weeks,” she says. “And then we went to Emerson’s and tasted some beer and helped brew a beer there – I remember the best moment of my life was probably drinking the beer straight out of the maturation tank, it was fresh-as and it was beautiful.”

As Leary learned more about yeast metabolism, she got hooked. “I just think yeast is so cool because it’s a natural little factory, really. A really interesting, complex little factory.”

It wasn’t long before she was seeking out new beers and flavours. “I remember going to these little bars in Dunedin and trying to find the yummy beers. One was called Inch Bar. It was tiny, but you could get a good selection of beer there and me and a couple of friends from the course would quite often go there and drink.”

When Leary graduated, she was offered a job at Lion in Auckland. “I was [in] a technical graduate-type role, but very quickly, I was trained up as the yeast propagator,” she says.

“The yeast propagator’s responsibilities were to provide healthy yeast to the Lion breweries around New Zealand. That was a really interesting job. The main strains of yeast to look after were Lion’s own ones. and also [yeasts for beers] we were brewing by contract. They all had their own unique personality.”

She says it was a messy job at times, but a great introduction to working with yeast. “We’d grow [the yeast] up in the lab and then scale up, so you had enough yeast to pitch your brew. And to get it down to Speights, for example. you’re filling it into kegs through lots of swing bends and things. And oh, my God, when it was spraying out, and you didn’t quite hit the swing bend properly, you’d get a good face full – a whole body spray, actually.”

Leary was soon approached by one of Lion’s suppliers, Invita, which works with specialty ingredients, including yeast. She worked there for 12 years, making product prototypes and testing ingredients, while also working alongside the country’s largest breweries doing things like product trials and testing dose rates.

She took a little bit of a break from yeast when she joined ADM’s food and beverage ingredient business based in Auckland. But it wasn’t entirely a break from beer – Leary still worked with New Zealand’s main industrial breweries but instead of selling yeast, she helped test and provide ingredients like juice blends for the fruited and radler-style beers.

At the start of 2019, Leary moved back into the realm of yeast when she took on her current role with Fermentis, where she works more closely with the craft beer side of the industry now.

“My key things are to grow and support the distributors and also then to share knowledge and educate the whole beer community,” Leary says.

“Fermentis is really strong on education. We’re doing what’s called the Fermentis Academy Programme, which is like a deep dive for a brewer into yeast and fermentation for a whole day. We basically share a lot of knowledge and theory, but also the latest scientific findings and application research.”

She says it is a role she enjoys, and which highlights how far the beer industry – and the yeast sector – have come in the past few decades.

Ruth Leary at work

“Many years ago, when I was first selling yeast, there was a dried lager yeast from Lallemand – since then, the quality and product ranges have just both exponentially grown. Fermentis now has some amazing quality products available in a dry form that have a really long shelf life; 20 to 30 years ago, people wouldn’t have dreamed of that quality,” she says.

“There’s also been growth in liquid yeast, as you see even local producers starting up and that’s quite cool. At Fermentis we encourage anybody in the world of yeast and believe that we can co-exist, because we’re offering a solution that works for brewers.”

Leary says that mindset of coexistence is one that permeates throughout the beer industry in New Zealand in a way that, in her experience, is unique to Aotearoa – and it’s one of the things she loves about the country’s beer community.

“New Zealanders in particular, and I think compared to anywhere else I’ve seen, are very sharing and not so secretive as a community. They are literally trying to help each other and they can see a real benefit in working together to improve the overall industry. So the sharing of ideas and recipes and open discussion happens all the time,” she says.

She says it is something that is setting the industry apart globally. “I think every brewing market in the world looks over to the US, and maybe historically to European countries, but I think New Zealand is carving out its own uniqueness. And there were a couple of New Zealand styles recently just added to the [Brewers Association] guidelines – how cool is that?”

While hops – often Aotearoa-grown – have long been heralded as the hero of beer, Leary says brewers here are collectively starting to take a keen interest in yeast and what it can do for their products.

“I think because you’ve seen this growth of different craft breweries, and [they’re] all exploring different angles of how they can differentiate their beer,” she says.

“There are some brewers who are very interested in how yeast can actually deliver them different profiles and types of beer. It’s always interesting working with those brewers too, who are willing to experiment and try something new.”

She says she finds the brewers and the work they do inspiring.

“Brewers have the perfect marriage of science and art. They have to be artists – they’re creative – and then you have to have this technical, geeky nerd side. Then add to that the sociability [aspect] and there’s not a more fun group of people to work with, really.”

This story is part of the series Beyond The Beer, sponsored by the Brewers Guild of NZ to highlight the women in the NZ beer industry