Elephants In The Room

What is up with Richard Seale? Screen shots of his online comments crossed my desk the other day. Richard Seale apparently wants to wade into the Pombe yeast discussion in his typical blowhard style of overheated rhetoric while not doing any homework. Foursquare is a truly world class distillery and I’ve enjoyed amazing rums from them over the years, but Seale, their “master” distiller (it’s a multi generation family business), has a strange communication style:Am I one of Seale’s “foreigners who arrive on the scene” who “found the name of a yeast on the internet”? One of his “saviours of Jamaica Rum”?

From what I gather in the industry, Seale compulsively feels the need to control the rum narrative, but is he up against any particular “foreigners” or merely just rum history plainly laid out in 100 years of journal articles?

If you are new to the Bostonapothecary blog, in the last couple years, it has mainly become a repository for a vast collection of first time digitized primary documents that form a near continuous timeline of the technical history of rum production. A very large amount of the documents have even been translated from French, Spanish, Dutch, and German. Some very cool scientist heroes have emerged like Rafael Arroyo who a lot of people are curious about. Many of the works almost form a rum prophecy that has yet to be realized.

“Fission” yeasts a.k.a. Schizosaccharomyces Pombe have become a hot topic in the rum world because they are repeatedly discussed in this trove of literature which has not been seen by the current generation of rum producers. These yeasts, according to the literature, produce the best rums. For the most part, historically, all true heavy rum distillates are from Pombe ferments. Supposedly quite a few distilleries use these yeasts while not aware or simply they thought it wasn’t newsworthy. In some cases, it may have been a minor secret attached to other processes. Pombe yeast rums are out there.

Demand for heavier fine rum is outpacing supply. Seale, of course, writes his initial comment in the wrong place, then has to amend it to mention he is criticizing a consumer for expressing their simple desire to buy more interesting premium rums. Consumers are waving dollars and saying if you make it, we will buy it, and Seale is saying… they are ignorant? If this was the more competitive world of wine, Four Square would have to commit Harakiri for such a faux pas.

This blog is descended from a research tradition I learned from studying the golden era of U.C. Davis, particularly from professors Maynard Amerine and James Guymon. Basically, be a bibliophile collector, translate, write letters around the world, make friends and be free with your time, stay rooted in agriculture, don’t get tainted by brands, keep an open mind, and don’t have a creepy agenda. In writings, I don’t explain—I explore.

To get back to Richard Seale’s comments, awareness of Pombe yeasts for the most part starts with Percival Greig in Jamaica in the 1890’s. Greig isolates numerous Pombe yeasts in Jamaica rum ferments but finds extraordinary aroma with his particular top fermenting yeast no. 18 under certain conditions he tests experimentally. Greig’s writings are both beautiful and accessible reads. At roughly the same time Christiaan Eijkman (who later wins a Nobel prize) isolates Pombe yeasts from Batavia Arrack in Indonesia. The significance here is that Pombe yeasts were the driver of the two most prized and valued spirits of the world at the time. Coincidence? Other productions had not successfully harnessed Pombe yeasts.

EIJKMAN (C.) — Mikrobiologisches ueber die arrak fabrikation in Batavia Zent. Bakt. Parasit. XVI, 97-108, 1894.

Seale’s quoted researcher, Charles Allan, came next and the cherry picked quote is either ignorance of rum history or intellectual dishonesty. At the time, a debate started, is it the yeast or bacteria? This debate was continued by various French authors like Pairault and we get the best summaries from probably the most important text on rum, Kervégant’s Rhum and Cane Eau-de-vie (1946) which I translated all 500 pages of. Read Kervégant’s chapter devoted to yeasts and you will find fission yeasts were no obscure curiosity. Not every one knew how to use them or find an example with rum aptitude.

ALLAN (Ch) — Report on the manufacture of Jamaica rum. Jamaica Sugar Exp. Sta. Rept. for 1905, 119-140 ; West Ind. Bull VII, 141-152,1906.

PAIRAULT (E.A.). — Le rhum et sa fabrication C. Naud, Paris, 1903.

After Allan, came Ashby who was a more important researcher and we see some incredible works. A remarkable paper is Yeast in Jamaica Rum Distilleries, 1909. We even see photographs of Schizosaccharomyces Pombe fission yeasts from his microscope.Ashby wrote other fascinating papers that demonstrate the importance of these yeasts. The Jamaican Pombe yeast I’m currently testing, collected in 1912, was likely isolated by S.F. Ashby at Hampden under the direction of H.H. Cousins who was an important figure in the development of Jamaica rums. Current marketing at Hampden is attributing a lot of their process to the 19th century, but very likely most of it comes from the very early 20th century under the advice of Ashby and Cousins (this does not diminish anything). Jamaica back then actually had a yeast service collecting high value yeasts and bacteria to be shared by the industry. There were mid century calls to restart the service which never materialized. Cousins actually developed the proprietary high ether distilling process Hampden uses. We recently acquired 2 of the 3 known copies of his Instructions for Making High Ether Rums (1906).

Arguments about yeast or bacteria flounder a bit over the years until Rafael Arroyo comes along and that is what the blog is best known for. Until a few years ago, Arroyo’s works were pretty much all lost except a few widely shared patents digitized by google. Very recently, I translated what adds up to an incredible lost serialized preface for Arroyo’s Studies on Rum (1945). Currently my research partner is working with Arroyo’s particular butyricum and mildew yeast, Suaveolens:

Aroma beneficial bacteria (and alt-yeast) does indeed produce a lot of the aroma attributed to heavy rums, but Pombe yeasts are their best symbiotic partner. This is not always the case and Arroyo actually used the Suaveolens mildew yeast with a Saccharomyces yeast. Spontaneous fermentations with bacterial complications often require yeasts that can multiply and produce ethanol under conditions of dizzyingly high osmotic pressure. Hampden supposedly has pH’s as low as 3.0!

What Darwin really meant by “survival of the fittest” was survival of what we would have to say today as fitment. Everything must fit together. Rum production featuring fermentation complications is a beautiful place to experience Darwin’s concept.

Last month we collected the lost J.A.S.T. papers which tell a strange mid century story of Jamaica mostly losing the ability to use fission yeasts outside of a few small enigmatic distilleries like Hampden and the now defunkt Cambridge (their productions were incredibly small). It is revealed that Jamaica almost hired Arroyo through a Panamanian intermediary to reintroduce them to these yeasts. Somehow it never came to be. Arroyo died young and the boom and bust cycle of the industry prevented a lot of fascinating possibilities from being applied. J.A.S.T had beautiful forums where papers and ideas were exchanged followed by a question section. These distillers conducted themselves in an incredibly dignified and respectful way which would be great to see return today.

Later in the 20th century, a Pombe revival almost came along through the incredible work of A. Parfait, Berthe Ganou-Parfait, and Louis Fahrasmane. Fahrasmane (a helpful pen pal) even goes on to isolate the most widely used Saccharomyces yeast for rum sold by Lallemand. These French works are absolutely beautiful and I translated almost everything they published.

So Seale claims to use this yeast, but also that it is unremarkable and apparently not even worth a marketing mention even though he loves “transparency”. In his Probitas product, pombe is very likely from a grand arôme mark contributed by Hampden (“in a very small role”). Its impact is not remarkable yet it is very likely a salient driver of identity for Hampden?

As Seale mentions, oenolgists have studied Pombe yeasts for their unique abilities to convert malic acid in wine (often in surplus) to ethanol. What he doesn’t mention because he does no homework is that these scientists did not stop there, but have further explored the aroma contribution of resting wines on Pombe lees. Something special about these yeasts is their extra thick cell walls, made of building blocks which eventually break down to become aroma, and this is also the source of their desirable high osmotolerance. Schizosaccharomyces muck has more to contribute than typical saccharomyces muck. Pombe dunder may be more valuable than other dunder… Pombe yeasts exhibit a spectrum of behavior (many are duds) but on average (without bacteria) they produce more esters than saccharomyces yeast because an amount of cell well dissolves into the ferment at every instance of cell division. Pombe yeasts on average also produce less fusel oil than saccharomyces yeast which is a big piece of the puzzle.

We haven’t even gotten to the part where these yeasts exhibit unique enzyme activity to release the highest amount of non-saponifiable aroma derived from carotene originating in the cane. This is where Arroyo’s rum oil comes in (also called Bauer oil which also implies a mixture of long chain esters), the highest value congener class in rum. Carotene derived aroma may exhibit the perceptual property described by perfumers as radiance that can valorize other compounds like esters.

[Fraction 5 exhibiting an emulsion that will eventually settle into droplets of rum oil / bauer oil.]

Foursquare rums possess rum oil and so too does Hampden (the finest!), but the character is dramatically different. This was articulately described by Arroyo and is something I have experienced first hand with the birectifier, a distillery analysis tool I have revived.

birectifierCurrently, my research partner and I have a collection of 14 historic Pombe yeasts, almost all of which are associated with rum production. One is from Jamaica and isolated over a century ago, very likely by Ashby or Cousins at Hampden. Another yeast, roughly 95 years old, is from one of the five great firms of Batavia. We are testing them with our limited resources and getting close to integrating bacterial complications. My partner is a brilliant microbiologist based in Chicago and I, based in Philadelphia, am merely trying to duplicate his work and learn to wield all the basics of pure culture technique.

Working with this collection will likely only help us understand what is possible when we isolate our own Pombe yeasts in the wild. They are also a training ground for integrating bacteria under controlled conditions which is no easy task.

We are also holding back from everyone a few key research papers and secrets of rum production we have learned in correspondence.

I’m out of time, thank you! Fission yeasts are our future!

16 thoughts on “Elephants In The Room

  1. Keep up the amazing work you do, Stephen. Thanks.

  2. As always, a fan of what your rum studies manage to unearth and grateful for your sharing of knowledge.

    I think however that the criticism of Richard Seale is a bit misunderstood though. He is currently pushing for a Barbados GI that does not exclude “native” yeast and bacteria such as pombe, the reason for down playing, in my opinion, is that one party wants to be able to go against this in the GI.

    Have a read of this on the Rum Diaries Blog page:

  3. Perhaps if you could have restrained yourself instead of dedicating 50% of the article to an ad hominem attack you could have written an understandable piece.

  4. Dear Michele, I think this is hard. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I do not think there is any personal attack against Richard Seale here. The comments regard his communication style, which can be blunt.

  5. The information you present is very interesting. The various personal attacks don’t suit this article at all and completely diminish the value of it. By the way, it’s spelled Foursquare, not Four Square. Perhaps do your homework next time?!

  6. Thanks for the link Ross, great to hear from you. I also went back and read the initial rum diaries post before that where there was a nice exchange of comments after the article. I end up agreeing with a lot of Richard Seale’s objectives and I wish we communicated in a way where more fruitful exchanges of ideas could occur.

    I would like distillers like Seale to take another look at Pombe yeasts because there is a lot of potential there to achieve his objectives. In the Rum Diaries post he states: “that horse has bolted, added yeast is here to stay”. If Pombe yeasts hold future potential, they may be a way to break the grip of what is sort of “yeast outsourcing” where far too many people end up using the same yeast. Doing more yeast work in house may add skilled employment at distilleries and be competitive if organoleptic quality increases also justify higher prices.

    Pombe yeasts can be grown in pure culture and added exogenously and that is likely how the industry would adopt them. They do not have to be a spontaneous thing. Pombe yeasts have a lower frequency of occurrence in nature than saccharomyces yeasts, so in distilleries that can have repetitive “spontaneous” Pombe ferments, (besides specialized baticians) it is likely because human intervention has dramatically changed the environment. It may becomes almost exogenous.

    A lot of production concepts appears to hang over the current rum industry’s heads and I’ve started to refer to this as the “rum prophacy”. A ton of stuff was conceived and research began, but never realized because of untimely deaths and the industry boom-bust cycle. Besides yeast choices like Pombe, I have referred to these as production “complications” and the industry would be wise to somehow capitalize on them. This is the realm of symbiotic bacteria and alt-yeasts (stuff like suaveolens), “rum canes”, Jackfruit usage, archaic still designs, etc. A few years ago, I proposed a protected “grand arome” framework for these that achieves a lot of Seale’s economic objectives. However, it is not limited to a nation but open to all that would invest. Somehow in creating a marketing convention for its more prized products, the industry would have to differentiate between “the real and the so-called…” (a warning I got from a renowned microbiologist).

    Climate change is accelerating which may put more pressure on production and there is the potential that a new comer may enter the scene, fulfill the Arroyo prophecy, and bring some of the most exciting ideas in rum production to the U.S. Everyone must remain open minded to be competitive and continue to excite consumers.

    Best. -Stephen

  7. Thanks Ivar, I’ll fix that typo.

  8. Thanks for the reply Stephen. Again I do enjoy going down the rabbit hole with some of the stuff you come across.

    I think there may be a misunderstanding with the info posted. I think it’s a tricky subject as you could say having access to pure cultured yeast is innovative but if it’s not a native yeast to the region then it kind of goes against that particular style if that makes sense? But again there’s nothing preventing use of pure cultures as long as it is a native yeast.

    The proposed Barbados GI and existing Jamaican GI actually only limit to exclude yeast that are non-native to their respective regions and both have stated pombe yeast are definitely used in current production. Worthy park have separate fermentation tanks for their wild/long fermentations, Foursquare have been fermenting cane juice in open vats, Mount Gay have open wooden fermentation vats so there’s quite a high chance this is where we would possibly find pombe at work.

  9. Actually I have to say, I understand the rant of Richard Seale. But I don’t think “foreigners who arrive on the scene” means this website and the thoughts and experiments here.
    For me the main difference between clean Rum and high flavored Rum is mainly from products of bacteria. At least when I enjoy a Hampden or WP high flavored Rum (the habitation velier series), the butyric and acetic esters for me taste very dominating. Dominating in a way that it’s not easy for other aspects to come through. For example the molasses flavor is far in the background.
    And as far as I know at least at tropical temperatures, schiz. pombe ferments cleaner than sacch.cerv.
    I know the effect that something like a special yeast sounds very interesting from the outside and sounds easy to make money with such special yeast Rums, regardless if it is a baseless hype or something real valuable. Same of course with dunder, muck, skimmings, bacteria and so on. It sounds like traditional AND new (because you can tell the story that it is traditional and was lost in the meanwhile) and therfore it sells, regardless if it has a real value.
    I think it is a plausible story that a very communicative and perhaps manipulative person could organize money and build or remodel a Rum distillery with the ideas like fission yeast, butyric bacteria and so on without having any experience with fermenting or distilling. And no clue and real interest what effect this yeast and bacteria have in detail. Then selling with a powerful distributor this probably inferior product with a good markeing story with words like “true”, “traditional” and “original”. And of course a cheaper version with sugar and spices. Perhaps also cans with cocktails.
    This is what I think Richard Seale perhaps is writing about. People, all with similar ideas, the ideas of their generation, without exerience, only ideas, skipping the knowledge of the generation before and telling him how to run his buisness. Not people with experience and knowledge including the one of the previous generation.
    But I have never read something from him before. For me this article looks a bit like it was not the first disaggreement with him.

  10. sjs – Seale has a point though. And it’s around the context of how this is all being positioned relative to the process, history, tradition that he and others in the industry live every day. This concept that somehow, the secrets to great rum were lost to the annals of time, and only through obscurity (seance maybe?) can we uncover the secret recipes, the single key that unlocks the puzzle. Realize that underlying the mythology and messaging, inherent in it, is somewhat of an underhanded swipe at the industry. In order for you to find it, they must have lost it. This “lost recipe”, “family recipe” mythology is unfortunately, far too prevalent in the spirits industry, and nearly always used for marketing purposes over substance.

    I agree with Seale – Pombe is mostly unremarkable. It’s “secret” is far more likely to be associated with it’s brutally slow fermentation kinetics. In the context of mixed culture fermentation, very slow yeasts like Pombe are simply providing a less competitive environment where these other microbial “contributors” have more of an impact, terroir shines through. Pure, aseptic, pombe rum fermentations are fairly boring. Derwo above is right, comes across fairly clean. Again, in this situation, it’s easy to fall back to the mythology – there exists one ideal strain that unlocks the puzzle.

  11. Great to hear from you. It turned out I was not the foreigner, and it was Alexandre Gabriel who had made one minor comment about Pombe yeasts.

    One thing that is driving our project is intense exploration of rums on the market with the birectifier. I’ve examined numerous Velier rums, Hampden’s Rum Fire, their 7 and a 20 year (bottled independently) et al! The yeasts are somewhat a host for the bacteria and possibly responsible for the non-saponifiable fraction (terpenes/rose ketones) that have a synergistic “radiance” effect on esters. Free long chain acids are also more important than the literature will have you believe. I’ve explored this first hand with the birectifier and wish I could directly share the experience with more people. Feel free to visit!

    Pombe yeasts can be made to produce clean rums. They can be just as diverse as saccharomyces yeasts and have both top fermenting and bottom fermenting versions. If someone is getting clean results, they likely have a clean yeast. My research partner is getting extraordinary results from a top fermenting example. He is claiming eureka moments like Percival Greig with his yeast no. 18. To get results, Cory says he has had to give it a lot of attention like maintaining a pH in the 5’s through fermentation.

    Pretty soon we will be adding bacteria, but it is a challenge that for us even begins with affording all the damn glassware! I’d really like to see fine rums go in a direction that promotes fermentation “complications” on top of the yeast, but the yeasts are the foundation. I have outlined many of the historic fermentation complications, but many more exist.

    We can mention our marketing story, but we can also prove real value (beyond experiencing the spirit itself) because we have a powerful and accessible tool like the birectifier. I have not been happy to hear people slam added sugar left and right, but never perform the very simple analysis to actually count it. More people have to do their homework.

    With rum, I think the hucksters start at the end and not the beginning. If you have the gall to invest money at the beginning you are going to build a true foundation (if you did your research). A few years ago I thought the real problem would be tech bros coming in with big money but only gravitating towards artificial enzymes, GMO yeasts, and fake aging. Many over hyped rums are out there, and a few such as from Venezuela, I suspect, at one point in time were “graded up” with Jamaica “grand arome”, but then they lost access to the blending stocks that made their reputation. There are many angles… For many established producers there is the risk of someone with proper money coming in and truly innovating to a degree that others cannot follow.

    Richard Seale is an interesting case, and I would love to meet him in person to gauge his genuineness. My understanding is he is only a first generation distiller, despite the heavy marketing claims. Previous to his family buying Foursquare in 1995, they were only blender/bottlers and never produced their own product. I don’t have complete information, but from what I gather, Seale has exactly the same story as Alexandre Gabriel.

    Best. -Stephen

  12. Hi James,

    The J.A.S.T. papers do indeed make it seem like something was lost by the 1940’s. To my knowledge, producers have not done very much with yeast or bacteria discovery. Supposedly Appleton has a new program. Many distilleries are very much dependent on the yeast companies. Fahrasmane appears to be the last great investigator and nearly the whole industry uses his yeast distributed by Lallemand. Hampden has a very small heritage based production, which is very likely the most important distillery of the world, but I don’t think anyone there understands 100% of their production.

    Regarding Grand Arome rums in 1932, Laguarague tells us: “Moreover, there is a knack for the interested manufacturers to have just as little knowledge as possible.”

    Vinegar process rums, may feature chain elongation of fatty acids by methanogenic bacteria, but that is not something ever described in the literature… How else do you put so much vinegar in and get something else coming out? When some were hunting for butyricums, they may have gotten something else…

    The literature says the opposite of unremarkable, but we are certainly in a proving stage and have our work cut out for us. These yeast are diverse and there will be duds. Of the 14 in our library, the first step was to look for top fermenting examples. Among those, there were a few that have yielded excellent results. The puzzle will not be unlocked until we learn to wield symbiotic ferments.

    Best. -Stephen

  13. I have more thoughts on the topic, but I don’t believe for a second that “Demand for heavier fine rum is outpacing supply.” I think this is a perfect example of geek echo chamber, where the desires and views of the loudest minority are not reflective of the market reality. Examples are slowly entering the market because it’s expensive to introduce products internationally and because consumer demand is low or uncertain. Rumfire is $20 on the shelf, and is never out of stock…

  14. Great to hear from you Andy. Fine spirits are seeing a boom and somehow pot distilled single malt scotch manages to sell a ton. Lets also lump Bourbon with heavier fine product. They sell quite a bit. I work in a restaurant and sell double I.P.A.s to old ladies left and right (there are also plenty of old ladies ordering old fashioneds that are in my echno chamber). Mezcal came out of nowhere to be worth 150 million in U.S. imports. Somehow in my state of Pennsylvania there is no availability for fine heavier rum (though I can find El Dorado). Rum Fire is not a great example because it is overproof and deliberately heady with ethyl acetate. I’d call it heavy but definitely not “fine”. It is also a blend of grand arome and very light pot still, not many people realize that.

    I’ve been a big buyer and sold spirits for years. I’ve also been in the trenches hand selling things that ten years later become mainstream. I could also tell you about the wine market inside and out.

    There are a lot of new strategies that could be taken to help introduce a new generation of rum. You have to be competitive and you have to innovate. If you pay me, I can do all of that for you and make you a great ROI.

    Best. -Stephen

  15. “The puzzle will not be unlocked until we learn to wield symbiotic ferments.”

    The puzzle will not be unlocked until the entire end-to-end symbiotic system is understood.

    From understanding today’s molasses feedstocks relative to what would have been available historically, through distillation style, where fermentation approach needs to be closely aligned to still type, from non-reactive pot distillations, to highly reactive double retort distillation, through clean column distillates, through to aging, blending … ultimately to the bottle … which is the ultimate arbiter of whether or not you’ve unlocked anything at all.

  16. Hi James,

    We are making a lot of progress in those areas and Kervegant’s book was extremely helpful. For feed stocks, it is appearing that a centrifuge is helpful for understanding all the junk in various molasses which really turns out to be extremely variable. Kervegant even describes a rigorous lab scale fermentation test to measure the potential alcohol of your molasses which is worth a look.

    Distillation is much easier than you think, but basically your ferment and its potential justify a type of distillation. If you don’t have appreciable volatile acids or evidence of rum oil, you don’t need a pot still with extra time under heat. A measure that we can add to our ferments is the delta of titratable acidity to see what was produced. The birectifier can reveal the strength of the fraction 5 which is very telling.

    Something that was interesting in the JAST papers was that the Jamaicans of the 1940’s did not appear to be masters of what exactly was happening in their pot stills. They were just doing very elementary studies. We thought for a time reactive distillation was really important to reducing fusel oil by producing esters of higher alcohols but that may not be that significant. Well selected Pombe yeasts which optimized nutrition may be the best strategy for reducing fusel oil.

    Kervegant describes a very different idealized aging system (in line with Arroyo) that differs from the discourse today. It is basically aging to completion. You should engineer the spirit to be dstilled as low as possible then the angel’s share will reduce the ABV over the years down to drinking proof where the spirit will be ready. To do this, we may have to learn a lot more about the tufo phenomenon to reduce distillation proof but there are a lot of leads.

    The birectifier is an incredible tool for understanding a variety of phenomena, but I’ll single it out for blending. You can use it to dissect and examine a wide variety of spirits across categories to learn the grammar of a finished spirit. Role models can help explain what needs to go into a finished product and what fragments of a blend contribute. The birectifier truly delivers. An automated version is doable, but I didn’t get enough interest to complete that project.

    The rum puzzle no doubt is a very big puzzle.

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