Hops attract a lot of attention and, as a far as innovation goes, it’s frankly a little tricky to stay on top of everything that's going on in the wide world of beer. Multiple new hop varieties are bred and launched every year, existing varieties are becoming better understood, and new types of hop product are helping brewers get more characters into their beer.
And into this busy world comes Phantasm. The name might not be familiar to Australian craft beer drinkers yet but it’s an innovation exciting a lot of brewers, particularly in the US where its use has been growing over the last couple of years. Behind it is a face many will already recognise too: Garage Project’s Jos Ruffel is responsible for this truly unique ingredient.
“We didn’t know what to think,” Jos says of its launch. “It’s a whole new category; it didn’t exist before we released Phantasm so we had nothing to gauge it on.”
So what, exactly, is Phantasm?
The powder is made from Marlborough sauvignon blanc grape skins, which, like New Zealand hops, are rich in the type of thiol precursors that create those appealing tropical or citrus aromas in beer. You can read more about the thought process that went into turning wine waste into a treasure for brewers in this Pursuit of Hoppiness article but, in essence, Phantasm is a brewer-friendly way to get more thiol-derived aromatics into a beer.
“Essentially, we’re ending up with a concentrated thiol precursor powder derived from the grape skins,” Jos says.
The name refers to the idea of a ghost or apparition – Jos says they talk about the flavours Phantasm contribute as being unreal. Although he had the original idea for the company and product back in 2018 and launched it the following year, his fascination with thiols goes back further and the topic is much-discussed within the beer industry.
“I knew it was an area of growing interest,” he says. “If we could capture some of these natural precursors and deliver something spectacular then breweries would get behind it.”
So what, exactly, are thiols?
They are organic compounds that appear in hops; over the last few years, brewers and researchers have invested much time and energy into better understanding how to turn them into something delicious in beer. The kind of tropical-producing thiol precursors people love are noticeably present in the likes of Mosaic and Citra, and much like New Zealand sauvignon blanc, the country’s hops are rich in them too.
While thiols don’t make up a large percentage of any hop, they’re pungent and when unlocked correctly can be quite powerful.
“We’re talking drops inside Olympic-sized swimming pools would be odorable to people,” is how Jos describes it.
The actual powder can be added at different stages in the brewing process but Jos says they’ve enjoyed success by using it in the whirlpool.
“The most elegant and simple addition timing is on the hot side of the whirlpool,” he says.
“Basically, you’re trying to load in as much precursor as you can to be available at the start of fermentation. Thiols are typically unlocked in the first 24 to 48 hours of fermentation, so you want all that precursor potential right there at the start.”
Unsurprisingly given the kind of tropical notes Phantasm is associated with – and the role of biotransformation in unlocking thiols, hazy IPAs and the powder have been close contemporaries. But it’s also been used in non-alcs, cider, mead and kombucha.
“It definitely has a home in big IPAs but it’s not the only place for it,” Jos says.
“We’re really bullish about thiol-forward lagers. It’s been used in sour beer, mixed fermentation, and some breweries have used it in barrel-fermented, barrel-aged beers and been blown away by the results.”
While Phantasm is by no means a hop replacement, it does add something unique to beers and can work alongside a range of hops, whether they're from New Zealand, new American varieties like Calypso, or a classic like Saaz.
“Phantasm is just another tool in the brewer’s arsenal they can use to get unique aromas. Like all things in brewing, it’s about striking the right balance," Jos says.
“We’re in a very interesting period where people are discovering the thiol potential of new and existing hops."
But while Phantasm is an antipodean creation, its presence has been highly limited in both Australia and New Zealand. That’s largely due to the best results coming when it's used with genetically-modified yeasts that help unlock those thiols in beer, such as Omega Yeast’s Cosmic Punch.
“They’re incredibly effective at converting thiol precursors and, when combined with Phantasm, bring a very powerful result,” Jos says.
However, Australia’s strict regulations around GMO products mean they aren’t available here, although there are other yeasts that offer an alternative, such as a thiol-releasing yeast recently launched by White Labs called WLP077. Hops already commonly used in the brewing of hazy beers – those that lead to biotransformation between yeast and hop compounds, like London Ale III and Verdant IPA – can bring positive results too, although not to the same extent as those thiol-driving varieties.
“We want to make sure that breweries outside of America that don’t have access to those strains have strains that will still give them a really compelling result,” Jos says. “It might not be to the same full extent but be somewhere close.”
It’s partially why the rollout of Phantasm hasn’t even begun in Australia, as well as the fact that it’s a still young company that needs to keep up with demand from existing customers. They don’t have plans to distribute on these shores until February next year at the earliest, although there has been plenty of interest from local breweries.
“It’s definitely snowballed; we have a very long waiting list of Australian breweries keen to get access,” Jos says.
“We see breweries having amazing results in North America and we want to make sure that when we roll out wider, we see the same thing happen.”
But Australian beer drinkers don’t have to wait. Garage Project's Phantasm Pilsner has been available locally and Brisbane’s Bacchus Brewing have released a couple of beers featuring Phantasm with the very Bacchus names, The Thiolight Zone and Phantasm of the Hopera.
This month also saw Hop Nation release their What’s In The Box? hazy IPA – a collaboration with Garage Project for which they were joined by Pete Gillespie and others from Garage Project at their Mornington Peninsula brewery. Hop Nation head brewer Tim Lardner says it was a great learning experience from a brewery they've worked closely with for some time, with Hop Nation brewing Garage Project beers for the local market.
When designing the recipe, they wanted to use something from both countries so picked Vic Secret and Nelson Sauvin hops, while also using Motueka as a mash hop to maximise thiol potential, and Citra because, well, everyone loves Citra. The Phantasm was added to the whirlpool and Tim says he was surprised by the end result considering it’s a hop combination with which he's familiar.
“You see the classic characters from the hops, but there's an unusual layer which I can only attribute to the thiols,” he says.
“I’ve used this same hop combination in the past but didn’t have this layer of tangy citrus fruit, which for me is grapefruit and tangy tropical fruit, which is more passionfruit.
“Those two really stood out to me but guava was an undertone as well. It also has a really pleasant dank character, which a few of the brewers here were pretty excited about.”
Like Jos, he could see Phantasm working across a range of styles and views the powder as having the potential to make a true difference in beer.
“It's not just a point of difference, it's actually a different spectrum of aromas,” Tim says. “You are getting a lot of thiol characters from hops but to have a different range of aromas coming from the yeast and the hop in combination with the Phantasm is really interesting.”
Tim says yeast selection was the toughest part of the recipe design and one they were still mulling on the day before brewing. Initially, they hoped to get the non-GMO strain from White Labs, but when they knew they wouldn’t be able to, they switched to two separate strains: one a Saccharomyces strain with a high level of two specific enzymes, the second from wine, which seems rather fitting considering Phantasm's origins.
"[The Saccharomyces strain] has beta lyase (β-lyase), which is basically the finishing touch in making sure that you can actually access the thiol compounds," Tim says. "It allows the released thiols to be expressed in the aromatic form.
"The second enzyme is beta-glucosidase (β-glucosidase); a catalyst that releases monoterpenes that contribute further aromatics to beer.
"Using a secondary non-Sacc yeast is a technique that allows the manipulation of the precursor-rich wort to achieve more thiol aromatics than if we just used the Sacc strain alone."
As for the beer’s name, well, that too speaks to how novel Phantasm is in Australia.
“We were just talking about how we were actually going to get the Phantasm into Australia because it hasn't been imported here yet in any volume,” Tim says.
They decided to airfreight the powder but always knew they had a fallback plan: Pete bringing it in his luggage, even if, as in Se7en, they expected Customs to be surprised by the box in front of them.
And, of course, the Phantasm did get held up in customs and the fallback plan was activated.
“He hustled it up with Jos to get about 15 kilos for the first brew,” Tim says. “Then, for the second brew that was going into that fermenter, we picked it up from the airport. It was just madness trying to get it sorted.”
Fortunately, border security must have some thiol fans among them, as Pete made it through without any worries.
“If I was a border security agent and I opened up a bag with some yellowish powder, then I’d probably be pretty suss,” Tim says with a laugh.