The Proof of a Good Education
By Carol Lea Spence
The yeast always get the blame.
So laments Pat Heist, ’96 BS A&S, ’00 MS, ’03 PhD CAFE, as he talks about the fuel and beverage alcohol distillation business. It’s a bittersweet lament, because Heist, double-degreed in plant pathology, has made quite a career from detecting and fixing the “150 or so ways” the fermentation process can be thrown off kilter.
Photo by Steve Patton
Heist partners with Shane Baker, a UK mechanical engineering alum, in Ferm Solutions, a Danville-based business that provides yeast and antibacterial products for U.S. and global fuel and beverage clients—clients that produce anywhere from millions of gallons of 200-proof ethanol a year to thousands of barrels of beverage alcohol a month. Perhaps even more important to those clients, Heist and Baker provide training and consultations to track down solutions to problems that can result in yield losses and cost overruns.
“We are literally the world’s experts in fermentation and process support for fuel and beverage alcohol facilities,” Heist said.
Could've been a mushroom farmer
Heist’s story has almost as many layers as there are potential problems in alcohol production. He developed an enduring interest in microbiology as an undergraduate, which carried through to his masters and doctoral degrees in plant pathology. In Professor Chris Schardl’s lab, Heist worked primarily with the tobacco blue mold pathogen.
“The problem with doing studies on a pathogen in an outside environment is that you get contamination,” he said. “Was that a contaminating bacteria I sliced through or was that part of the pathogen? It was all microbiology, preventing contamination.”
If that sounds similar to his present occupation—well, it is.
Photo by Steve Patton
“You can contaminate a plate in a lab or you can contaminate a million-gallon fermenter. It’s all the same.”
Armed with his doctorate, Heist took a route few expected. He joined the faculty of the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine, teaching microbiology.
“You can’t just let opportunities go by. There aren’t a million plant pathology jobs, but there are a million microbiology jobs, and plant pathology is microbiology,” he said. “Just realize everything you can do with your skill set and don’t be afraid to go out on a limb.”
Though he loves teaching, Heist is a born entrepreneur—“I was always looking for opportunities. I was the guy who got in trouble at school for selling candy, and they found out because the concession stands noticed a significant drop in sales.”
Inspired by all the unclaimed logs left from surface mining around Pikeville, he started to get into shiitake mushroom production. He took an extension class offered by now retired UK Forestry Professor Deborah Hill. He found “the mushroom thing kind of cool,” but he soon had the opportunity to consult for a few companies, one of which dealt with fuel alcohol.
Heist watched as that company pulled in millions of dollars and realized he could either be a consultant helping them make money or he could start his own business. He chose the latter.
This all starts with rock 'n' roll
As it turns out, his future partner Baker—“the business guy” to his “science guy”—was only an amp away, the lead guitarist in the rock band in which Heist sang lead.
Like all good musicians, their timing was perfect. They started Ferm Solutions from nothing—“two guys, an accountant, and a Maxima”—about the time when renewable fuel standards first kicked in. When the federal government mandated 12 percent ethanol in all fuel by 2012, the fuel alcohol industry rapidly expanded to meet the demand.
Working out of Baker’s garage at first, they could barely keep up with the demand.
“We would literally spend all weekend packaging antibiotics, and, oh wow! We’ve got 900 pounds.” Heist said. “Then someone would call and need 900 pounds. Just like that, gone!”
Today that garage is just a fond memory.
“If you get the yeast business of a customer at a fuel alcohol plant that has million-gallon fermenters, you’re talking up to 8 tons a month for one customer,” Heist said. “We’ve got 40, 50 customers across the globe.
That’s a lot of daggone yeast, so we do a lot of business."
You can take the guy out of the lab, but…If Heist and Baker’s relationship started with rock 'n' roll, Heist and Luke Moe began their affiliation over pizza and, appropriately, a fermented beverage—beer. They’re part of a UKAg group who call themselves The Deadbeats and meet weekly to “talk about whatever, even science,” said Moe, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.
Together they obtained a grant from Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation. The grant has funded Qing Li, a graduate student who works with Moe, to study microbial communities in bioethanol fermentations.
“Pat’s been great to work with,” Moe said. “At heart he really is a basic scientist, and he wants to understand how these things work.”
When Heist talks about the science, his enthusiasm quickens his speech, nudging his usual good ol’ boy drawl aside. “Our laboratory has multiple capabilities now. We do a lot of supportive work for our customers, but we also have the technical support that goes along with it. So you can have a starch issue and call your yeast people—us—and we’ll help fix the problem.”
More than 600 different yeast strains reside in Ferm Solutions’ repository, each with its own “skill set.” One might be good at using sugar. Another survives in high heat.
“That’s when you get into crossing them, just like traditional breeding. If I cross those, I’ll have one that makes high alcohol and is heat resistant,” Heist said.
Ferm Solutions also markets products to control bacteria, so in addition to their depository of yeast, they have more than 6,000 different isolates of bacteria on site from distilleries all over the world. Of course, knowing what he does about bacteria, Heist wonders, are they changing over time? Are they becoming antibiotic resistant?
Photo by Steve PattonThat’s where Moe and Li enter the picture. A dedicated yeast fermentation is supposed to be a sterile environment, basically just yeast digesting the sugars and producing ethanol as a byproduct. When bacteria does get in there, they use the same nutrient sources as the yeast, so not only are they competing with the yeast for food, they don’t make ethanol as a byproduct. Yields drop precipitously. A serious bacterial contamination issue at a fuel alcohol plant can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.
Moe is an environmental microbiologist. He believes the bacteria are getting a bad rap.
“In any type of fermentation, regardless of how sterile you think it is, there’s going to be bacteria in there. The question is, what triggers this event where the bacteria suddenly start to out-compete the yeast?” Moe said. “It’s not super sexy science maybe, because we’re not necessarily engineering a new pathway to make fuels, but it is every bit as important. As we scale up production of liquid fuels from biological resources, it’s going to continue to be a problem. Now’s the time to address it.”
Now I'm running a distillery
On solid ground with their yeast and antibacterial business, Heist and Baker have expanded their opportunities yet again.
“I could have been a mushroom farmer. I could have stayed a medical school professor. I could have done fuel alcohol,” Heist said. “Now I’m running a distillery.”
Photo by Steve Patton
The partners explained that their recent venture into opening a craft distillery, Wilderness Trail Distillery, strengthens their core competency in fermentation. Open for only a few months, the business is already producing impressive liquor from a copper still Baker designed and Louisville’s Vendome Copper and Brass Works built. Their Blüe Heron vodka and sorghum-based Harvest Rum have taken six major awards. Their single-barrel batch bourbon has begun its five-year aging process in barrels on racks in the room next to the still.
Photo by Steve Patton
“We automatically know any problem that you can have in a distillery. We’ve got a tiny distillery, so we can manage it as efficiently as possible and produce a product that we think is going to be one of the best products out there. Every step of the process is all based on scientific data or observations that we’ve made in almost 200 distilleries worldwide,” Heist said.
It's a deep blue connection
To walk into Ferm Solutions’ one story concrete block building is almost like walking into a satellite site of UK. In the lab, researchers work on a variety of projects, such as determining the yield from an all-malt fermentation, documenting yeast propagation times, and breeding new yeast varieties. And most of those researchers have UKAg ties.
“I always look for every opportunity possible to give back to UK, because I definitely got a lot out of it and got a lot of opportunities to go places,” Heist said.
Heist and Baker make a serious effort to hire UK alumni and interns. Ag biotech alumni and students fill the place. Kevin Hawk has just finished his junior year as an ag biotech major. He’s worked as an intern with Ferm Solutions for two summers and a semester. Robbie Brooks, ’11 ag biotech, is a laboratory technician with the company. Lab manager Brian King, ’06 ag biotech, ’11 PhD plant biochemistry and physiology, studied and worked under Professor George Wagner. Even Joy Ghosh, who received his doctorate in biology, worked for a while in UKAg Associate Professor Michael Goodin’s lab.
And every one of them, supported by their research, would probably say, “Don’t just blame the yeast. Let us figure it out.”