Behind Phantasm's Potent Precursor is Now Even More Potential

Great timing and like-minds brought Phantasm and Omega Yeast R&D teams together first.

By Danielle Sommer and Jos Ruffell

May 24, 2023

About 10 years ago, thiols came across my desk in a big way, and sort of just stuck. That started a long journey of how to capture them in beer.

After years of independent thiol research, as well as some recent collaboration between Omega Yeast’s and Phantasm’s R&D teams, Phantasm’s founder, Jos, sat down with us to talk curiosity, experimentation, discovery and new Liquid Phantasm.

I doubt if there’s anyone who hasn’t heard of Phantasm in our industry by now. What most people probably know about it is that it’s a source of complex thiol precursor. It’s also truly unique, and deeply connected to some important things, including research on thiols that’s ongoing. Maybe I could ask you first to tell us just about where it comes from?

Sure. Phantasm is a natural thiol precursor product that’s derived from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grape skins. 

We choose to work with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc because it’s such a potent source of thiol precursor; It is thiols that make Marlborough sauvignon blanc so distinctive and makes such strong tropical passion fruit aromas. 

We can actually trace the grape skins back to individual rows and blocks, and know exactly how it’s been grown, when it was harvested, how it’s been treated, and how it’s been captured at source from the winery. 

It’s an unrivaled source of material. Through our trials, we’ve found that it’s incredibly unique and potent compared to other sources that were evaluated.

You mentioned thiols have been a topic in wine for decades. How did the idea cross-pollinate for you? What inspired you to look into bringing that knowledge from the wine industry into application in beer?

The excitement of knowing that we’re exploring a new area that hadn’t even been considered in beer. I mean, that was really cool.

We’ve got a phenomenal wine industry down in Marlborough. They’ve spent a huge amount of time really trying to understand thiols and thiol precursors, and how to really get the most out of them and the grapes that they’re growing. And so it’s just an incredible source for us to be tapping into and working with.

Alongside Phantasm, I’m part of a brewery, Garage Project. We started in 2011, in an old petrol station here in Wellington. We started on a half barrel system running under what we call 24 – 24, which was brewing and releasing 24 different beers in 24 weeks. 

Nowadays that sounds maybe quite par for the course, but 12 years ago that was quite a challenge, and quite unique. So the brewery started with a very sort of experimental, playful mindset, and we’ve carried on with that.

So, being based in New Zealand, we have fantastic hops — and this phenomenal wine industry, and there’s a lot of research that’s gone in around the wine industry in particular, around thiols. 

Pretty early on in the brewery’s history, we got connected with some legendary hop breeders and some legendary yeast and wine researchers.

The common thread was thiols. 

New Zealand hops are really high in thiols — no one really knew why. 

And then, obviously, sauvignon blanc is a New Zealand wine and a lot of the focus has been on thiol development and how to express them. 

So, about 10 years ago, thiols kind of came across my desk in a big way, and sort of just stuck. That started a long, long journey of how to capture thiols in our beer and how to express them.

At Garage Project, we’ve explored making natural wines as a brewery as well, and experienced how to capture thiols in wine. 

I guess all of those individual pieces just slowly accumulated to a point of that inspiration, of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc grape as a potent source of thiol precursor and capturing it and using it to express those aromas.

When we were testing Phantasm very early on, we were getting okay results in our trials, but the missing piece was — well, it was sort of perfect timing with the work that Laura and the Omega Team were doing with Thiolized yeast. 

It was sort of a one plus one equals three result when the two of us got together.

Thiols are now pretty well understood in wine, but at the time, there was very little known or understood about them in beer other than that they were appearing in hops. 

We didn’t really know how to express them in beer. 

There was some research coming out showing that there was even thiol potential in malt as well.

The mystery of them was really the allure and the idea of trying to help solve something that would bring — if we were successful — something unique, another tool, another note that brewers use in their beer. 

Knowing how impactful thiols are in sauvignon blanc and really enjoying those aromas, it was a mission of whether we could connect those dots.

It sort of just blew my mind what could be. Once you have that sort of transformative experience you want to keep going and exploring.

Do you also have a background in wine?

My background in wine is enjoying wine. 

I had a trip to Belgium years ago that switched me on to natural wine, I guess in the same way that I got switched on to craft beer years ago.

Getting interested from that moment led us down the path of trying to do some interesting wines at Garage Project. And then eventually producing wine in our mixed fermentation wild workshop site here in Wellington — and farming two blocks of organic grapes in Nelson. So I sort of learnt through doing and experience.

How unique and different natural wines are is just mind blowing. I’d never experienced wines like it. 

In much the same way as when I had my first pint of Pliny the Elder, it sort of just blew my mind what could be. 

Once you have that sort of transformative experience you want to keep going and exploring.

The Omega Yeast and Phantasm R&D teams have been collaborating for a while now. How did you find each other?

It was just phenomenal to find people and a company so focused in this same area as us.

We’d been thinking about thiols and working on the formation of Phantasm. We’d pulled together our own R&D team, but to come across another group really leading the charge in a connected, differentiated area of thiols was fantastic. 

Just being able to jump on calls and have questions and find answers on the other end, and then vice versa; to get Laura and Lance on calls with some of the people down here who have just spent a huge amount of time working and thinking about thiols themselves, and who have done a lot of research and know them inside and out — it was really collaborative.

And then, that excitement of knowing that we’re exploring a new area and finding things that hadn’t even been looked at, or considered or used in beer. I mean, that was really cool.

Because of the inherent time delay, whenever new results would come through, it was always an exciting moment. Typically, for me, I was waking up to the news, you know, with the time zone difference. 

Then seeing the outcome, almost, inevitably, in each case, it was like, why the hell did that happen?!” I can think of a lot of follow up calls with Laura where it was like that, like what is going on there?!” but in a good way.

As we dug into what some of these promoter compounds and things that are stimulating thiol release, we were just trying to wrap our heads around it. The more we learn about thiols, the more questions we have.

The wine industry has been looking at this for a long time. They know how to predictably get results. But for beer, we’ve just come to the party, and we’re just so much more relentless and experimental. We push in a way that wine can’t.

What are some of the new, open questions that have come up in the wake of having answered earlier ones?

The level of sophistication we’re getting to now around the dosage, what it’s going to release, and conditions to set up in your fermentation for that successful release. 

For us, it’s sort of the makeup between the individual thiol precursors, understanding the ratios and what the optimal package of precursor looks like– 

There’s so much I can’t say related to that yet, because we’re still gathering data.

You’re on this thiol-pursuit of discovery in more ways than one I think, which includes having looked for naturally occurring sources of thiol-releasing yeast, for example.

Yeah. it’s something that we’ve been interested in for a long time. And I think as you well know, it’s a tough problem to solve in a really meaningful way, which has led to steps like using CRISPR technology. We think that is showing what’s possible and it’s doing a great job of educating people. 

We can say now, we’re talking about specific levels of nanograms per liter, parts per trillion of 3SH, 3SHA, 4MMP. 

We’re now quantifying and going from the mysterious maybe something’s happening’ to being able to say something like, 2000 nanograms per liter of 3SH is a really great sweet spot to shoot for in your beer.’ 

And so I think Thiolized strains are doing a great job of helping that education.

Unfortunately, a large part of the world can’t access them at the moment. And I think, hopefully, that will change. 

In the meantime, we’re doing what we can to push that research; within Garage Project we’re certainly pushing that research. Anyone else who’s interested in trying to go down that path, we’ll help support and encourage as well.

It all comes back to just wanting to be involved in our unique ingredients and finding a way to stand out. How do you stand out? To me the answer to that is helping to create our own terroir, and our own ingredients.

New Zealand Hops are another thiol-centric profile that links thiols to beer. In addition to your work with Phantasm, and Garage Project, you’re also part of Hāpi Research and Freestyle Hop Farms.

Being based in New Zealand, I feel like we have great things at our disposal. It’s very easy to just pick up the phone and chat to people here and everything is very, very connected.

And I’ve always taken inspiration from the culinary world, from chefs. I feel as growers, we have to get involved in our raw materials. It’d be unimaginable for a top chef in the world to have core ingredients turn up from an unknown source or farm that they haven’t had a connection with. 

That was the situation for us for hops in New Zealand for a long time. It was a co-op with lots of farms feeding it, but we’d have no insight as to where the hops that we were using in that particular bag were grown, when they were harvested, how they were treated. 

We just naturally wanted to get more involved in where our ingredients came from. That started a journey of trying to discover more in the hop industry in New Zealand and that led to a connection with Freestyle Hops. They were new at the time and breaking away. 

Collectively, we saw an opportunity to do new things to approach growing and processing and selling in a different way.

On the Garage Project side, we were just wanting to be more deeply involved in the idea of helping to create our own hops. And so that led to Hāpi Research being founded. 

We secured a significant portion of government funding to support those efforts to help grow and develop the hop industry and create a new breeding program and bring choice and change to the industry. 

The ultimate goal there is to breed and create new hops. That, Garage Project has played a role in. 

It all comes back to just wanting to be involved in our unique ingredients and, you know, how do you stand out? To me the answer to that was helping to create our own terroir and our own ingredients.

That’s something I get quite excited about. And I guess it’s led to the work around hops and Hāpi Research and it has also led to Phantasm. 

And it’s expanding now to then making those ingredients available to other fantastic breweries around the world, too.

I’m intrigued by the idea of exportable terroir

What does it mean to create your own terroir?

This sort of thinking is more from the Garage Project side. Just being based out in New Zealand, we can travel up to Norway and there could be a brewery up there brewing with New Zealand malt and hops and making a fantastic New Zealand Pale Ale. 

I’m intrigued by the idea of exportable terroir and creating unique ingredients that as a brewery we can travel and brew with and bring to the table or share. 

It sort of helps build a sense of identity for us. 

When you walk into an American bar, there could be half a dozen New Zealand IPAs on the menu. That’s fantastic. But I also want to feel like we’re bringing something to the table as well.

What do you think New Zealand brewers would do with Thiolized yeast?

I think we’d see the styles that people are familiar with down here, like New Zealand pilsners, and some of the thiol character that happens naturally down here dialed up to 11.

People are always inherently interested in seeing how far they can push things, especially brewers. It’d be fun.

The process of discovery isn’t really a direct path. It’s probably more of a commitment to curiosity. Is there something like that in this for you?

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It starts off with an idea and you think it might be a pretty straightforward, linear path. You look back and it has zigzagged and ended up somewhere completely different. 

I think that’s the exciting part of working in this area at the moment. It’s still very new. We’re learning at a rapid pace. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about thiols, precursors and the sort of interactions that are happening inside yeast when it’s unlocking in beer. 

The wine industry has been looking at this for a long time. And I think they’ve got their answers and know how to predictably get the results that they’re looking for. 

But for beer, the interesting thing is that we’ve just come to the party. And we’re just so much more relentless and experimental. We push in a way that wine can’t really, because of it being an annual crop and being pretty high-risk, high-reward each fermentation. 

Whereas for us, firing off trials left, right and center, we can brew beer every day of the week, and try things. 

So I kind of think that the learning in craft beer can accelerate to overtake wine, which is really exciting.

There seems to be sort of an entourage promoter effect. It’s an exciting area of focus and research for us.

There are a few other Phantasm products, like hop products that include Phantasm–

Thiol-enriched hop products were part of the original plan for Phantasm from day one. It was this idea that we can bring novel and new, advanced hop products to breweries to use — combining our natural precursors with suitable hops in interesting ways. 

There’s a convenience factor, but, also, we’ve seen in our fermentations that there are hop precursors that Phantasm doesn’t bring to the table.

But if Phantasm is present alongside these fermentations, from within these combinations, it will help unlock those precursors at higher levels.

There seems to be sort of an entourage promoter effect. It’s an exciting area of focus and research for us. In the trials we’re working on with Laura, we’re drilling in to understand what’s driving this and what’s helping in these complex interactions to unlock the thiols in hops at higher levels than what would happen otherwise by themselves with Thiolized yeast. 

We’re starting to get a pretty good handle on what we think is driving that. 

It just opens up more avenues and opportunities to further develop and improve the Phantasm products. And it’s exciting to brewers. 

The ultimate success is whether it translates through to the drinkers, and we’ve seen just a phenomenal response. People are really excited to try beers using the YCH 303 blend or Mega Motueka.

What is it like to collaborate with hop providers to discover which hops would blend synchronistically?

We’re looking for precursor load in hops and just stacking the deck by making sure there’s a lot of precursor potential. Then we include those hops in the trials. 

Again, we’re getting that one plus one equals three result.

In terms of hops research, for the Hāpi breeding program, thiols have been a key target. And there are other breeding programs where they’re starting to really focus on these compounds.

I think there are going to be some pretty cool options coming through in the foreseeable future. And if we can help, that’s ultimately where we want to be. 

We always joke that Phantasm is like MSG for beer. It helps make everything pop just a little bit more. 

Liquid Phantasm is new. What important evolution does that represent for the product?

The last two years has really all been about moving it to a liquid, pourable product, which allows us to significantly concentrate the precursor load. 

It can allow us to set a baseline amount of precursor, too, so we can get some really consistent dialed in dosage rates for breweries to use. 

There’s an ease of use there, the shipping freight costs become more attractive, there’s more pure precursor weight per pound or kilogram; that opens up other avenues for collaborations for breweries and ways in which they can use it. 

Higher concentrations, smaller doses, etc. Brewers can use it to push things a little further if they wish as well.

Thiols are not a silver bullet, but they can bring really interesting complexity – and potentially stability. That is worth exploring.

What do you see in the future for thiols?

I would say, you know, that thiols are not a silver bullet. You ultimately need balance in your beer, but they can bring really interesting complexity to your aroma – and potentially stability to your beer. 

While we’re in this early stage of discovery and exploration, we’re seeing some pretty thiol-forward, extreme beers, but ultimately, I think it’s going to settle down into a place where it’s just another tool in the arsenal. 

It’s a space that’s evolving and changing; companies like Omega Yeast are pushing really hard and bringing interesting developments all the time. It’s not static. 

I’m really, really interested to see, you know, 10 years from now looking back, where things have finally settled down and landed. I think it’s gonna be a pretty cool place.

I hear that you started your career in video game development.

Yeah. I dropped out of university and set up a video game studio with friends and then moved on to another studio. That took me up to San Francisco and LA a lot. 

It was on those trips that I had that formative Pliny the Elder experience that really turned me into a big beer geek.

To innovate is to respect tradition.

It’s kind of funny because there are a few people in the brewing industry now that have also come from video games. There seems to be a natural leap — maybe something about big complex projects — now they can involve hundreds or 1000s of people. But yeah, it’s a fun creative industry and still a relatively new industry. Maybe those are the areas I have interest in. 

Though brewing is one of the oldest professions in the world — the thing I love about it is that it has never been static, and it has always been evolving and changing.

There’s a quote I heard from a Japanese chef, Chef Yoshihiro Murata at a famous restaurant in Japan called Kikonoior which says to innovate is to respect tradition.” 

You sometimes hear people banging on about something pushing beer too far, but you know, if we didn’t we’d still be drinking, you know, smoky, wild fermented beer without hops, according to initial origins. 

Even moving to the Lager – or kveik beer – was innovation and technological development. 

So my take is that; that by innovating, we’re respecting the tradition. 

We’re pushing it forward, as it’s always been pushed forward. 

Same with video games. It’s a young industry; it is always pushing forward.

I’ve heard a few people say now how remarkable it is the way New Zealand punches above its weight in innovation. What do you think contributes to this? Or do you perceive it that way?

I could do that. I could build rockets.’

Yeah, we have this history – they call it the number-eight wire’ approach–

New Zealand is inherently isolated. We’re at the bottom of the world. And as a young country, if something broke, you needed to fix it. 

In some ways we’re very progressive – we were the first country to give women the vote in the world. We have a female prime minister now (we’ve had three). We were first country to split the atom.

There’s been a lot of interesting phenomenological approaches down here that have been done with limited resources – with that DIY, number-eight wire approach. 

That has even carried on now to cool companies like Rocket Lab, which is a less-spoken-about, incredibly successful rocket company launching satellites pretty regularly up into space out of New Zealand. It came from a kiwi guy who was just like, I could do that. I could build rockets.’

There’s also a bit of a myth around it to be fair, which I don’t always think is productive. But we do have an environment down here that’s conducive to exploring and taking risks. 

That can be a supportive environment for innovation.

How do you think of yourself in terms of New Zealand and where you’re going, and how all of these things you do are growing?

I think it’s hard in New Zealand to not grow up looking out on the world. 

When I was growing up, we were three million people, now almost five; but we’re still many times smaller than New York, for example. 

As a New Zealand company you do look to export, but I think we’re also always curious to know how we stack up, to see how our products are being used around the world. Pit yourself against the world’s best.

That has been a phenomenal piece of Phantasm. 

Seeing breweries around the world pick it up and run with it has been really rewarding. Seeing them get great value out of it is great motivation to keep pushing and keep developing.

Jos Ruffell Pete Gillespie Bhang Thandai

Jos & Pete, Garage Project Founders, sourcing ingredients for a hemp inspired beer.

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