Al Buck, The Bug Collector
Company: East Coast Yeast
Time in Position: Three years
Previous Job: Corporate microbiologist in various industries
If you’re a serious homebrewer, you probably already know about East Coast Yeast. Perhaps you tracked down a rare vial of BugFarm, its funky mix of wild yeast and lactic bacteria. Or maybe you read an interview with Al Buck, the company’s founder.
However you first heard about it, East Coast Yeast seems like a fairly large operation. Sure, it’s no White Labs or Wyeast, but East Coast Yeast is arguably the most well-known yeast company on the East Coast—and it’s a one man business.
A former career microbiologist at companies like Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Aventis, Buck got into beer the same way many homebrewers do. “A long time ago, my wife bought me a homebrew kit for Christmas,” he says. Does that mean he transformed into a mad scientist, concocting batch after batch of funky beers?
“Well I had carboys everywhere soon enough but I brewed all over the map,” he says with a laugh. “Lots of ales of all kinds, really everything except lagers.”
Despite the humble tone, it’s clear Buck is talented. He racked up awards soon after he started brewing, eventually winning The Bruery’s homebrew contest. (If you were drinking good beer in 2009, Batch 50 Gueuze-style ale was the one that Buck and The Bruery brewed two batches of, blended, bottled and then served at GABF.)
Over the years, the synergy between brewing and his day job fell into place and the business wheels started turning. He slowly tracked down and collected rare yeasts and other microbes. Then, in 2012, Buck decided to help out his local homebrew shop, Princeton Homebrew Supply. “I figured offering a handful of unique strains for sale might help draw a few people into the shop,” he says, “but the response was big.”
Big enough that a year later he quit his day job to focus on the company full time. And now in early 2015, he’s ready to hire his first employees and keep growing.
So what does a day in the life of a yeast company owner look like? According to Buck, he could easily pass as a brewer. “A typical day right now is making media,” says Buck, referring to days spent brewing his version of modified wort. “Essentially, that means I’m making a beer, except I’m not.”
Most days Buck walks into a local partner brewery in New Jersey where he goes through the motions of brewing a batch of beer. Only his recipe might seem a little odd. He uses a variety of amino acids and fermentable sugars and what he calls, “all that good stuff to make microbiological media.” Which basically means nutrient-rich beer.
Once the media sterilization is over, he transfers the wort-like substance to propagation tanks and inoculates it when it reaches the proper temperature. After the yeast or other organisms do their job of reproducing, Buck splits off from the brewer’s path: instead of collecting the liquid, he collects the yeast slurry. From there he analyzes samples under a microscope to ensure quality and proper cell count.
Even when the yeast is checked and packaged, his work is far from over. Buck says in many ways, that part of East Coast Yeast—phone calls, shipping, accounting—is no different than other small businesses.
At the end of most days though, he’s happy with his work. “I set my own schedule to a large degree,” he says. “And it’s fun to hear feedback from customers.” ■