IU researchers brew science into sweetness to create new product for Cardinal Spirits

When thinking of celebrity autographs, a researcher signing a scientific journal isn't the first image that comes to mind.

But last month Indiana University Bloomington scientist Matt Bochman was signing copies of the journal Fermentation at a Cardinal Spirits event celebrating the journal's cover article: a feature on his study of the fermentation process used to make the Bloomington distillery's Honey Schnapps.

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From left, Adam Quirk, Matt Bochman and Justin Hughey, the head distiller for Cardinal Spirits, at the distillery. Photo courtesy of Cardinal Spirits Distillery

Bochman is an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. Last year, he and two students extracted the yeast from the honey bees nestled on the rooftop of Cardinal Spirits' distillery near the B-Line Trail in Bloomington. The distillery then took the yeast strains and created their sweet new spirit, Honey Schnapps.

Bochman had the assistance of IU undergraduate students Joseph Barry and Mindy Metz, who served as co-authors of the paper. Barry and Metz graduated in the spring.

"The big idea of the study was to characterize a wild yeast strain and see how well it would perform in a commercial fermentation compared to a yeast strain that has been artificially selected in laboratories," said Barry, who currently works in a cidery in Vermont.

Both students enjoyed working with Bochman and conducting the research.

"Matt is the best, and his lab is so awesome," said Metz, a resident of Fort Wayne, Indiana. "Everyone accepted me with open arms, and we all became quick friends. Joe and I had a blast, while also learning about some really exciting research in the beer industry."

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The Honey Schnapps being bottled. Photo courtesy of Cardinal Spirits Distillery

This is not a new hobby or profession for Bochman. Aside from serving as a faculty member at IU, Bochman is also the co-founder of Wild Pitch Yeast. The business extracts yeast strains from the environment and packages them for use by breweries and distilleries like Cardinal Spirits -- as well as backyard brewers and hobbyists.

Cardinal Spirits co-founder Adam Quirk said Bochman and his students were great partners in creating the sweet spirit.

"We worked with Matt on Honey Schnapps because he's the only scientist I know who has the same overlapping passions of new flavor development, fermentation and pure weirdness," Quirk said.

Bochman said the partnership developed because Cardinal Spirits was searching for a way to create a honey spirit made with local products.

"Cardinal didn't have a recipe, they just knew they had local yeast and they wanted everything to be local," Bochman said. "We set up a bunch of experimental fermentation for them. We did mixes and matches with the local yeast, so the two things went hand in hand."

Originally, Quirk suspected Bochman would find the yeast on the bodies of the bees since they're fuzzy. He was surprised to learn the strains came from the honey bee's guts.

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From left, Steve Llewellyn, owner and brewer for Function Brewing, Matt Bochman and two other attendees enjoying the Honey Schnapps. Photo courtesy of Cardinal Spirits Distillery

"We collected honey and beeswax looking for yeast that could ferment the honey," Bochman said. "But it turned out the bees kept their hive super clean so we didn't end up finding any yeast in it. It came from inside the honey bees instead."

"The spirit itself is probably the tastiest thing we make here at Cardinal Spirits, in my opinion," Quirk said. "It's incredibly complex but actually pretty easy to drink. I love it just chilled and neat -- or in some herbal tea like chamomile or mint."

The distillery held "Honey Schnapps Happy Hour with Matt Bochman" in early October to showcase their new spirit to Bloomington. The event featured Bochman signing copies of the journal, as well as an opportunity to try the raw honey and Honey Schnapps.

"It's completely abnormal to be signing copies of a journal, but it's a nice change," Bochman said.