Hattiesburg — Driving off of U.S. 49, going around to the back of Hattiesburg’s Industrial Park and getting out of the car, you encounter an unusual smell coming from a plain, block-shaped building. Engulfed by the heavy scent, it seems as though you’ve driven up to a brewery that’s about to overflow with beer.
Fermentation causes the unexpected smell, but the fermentation has nothing to do with hops and malt. Inside the 37,000-square-foot building is USA Yeast, and if you eat Nature’s Own, Bunny Bread or any of some 28 other brands, then your bread began in a petri dish at USA Yeast.
At other times, there are different but equally intense smells. When the molasses is cooking, it smells like you’re standing outside a sugar cane mill.
There’s no other yeast-producing plant like it in Mississippi and no other USA Yeast in the country. USA Yeast is shipped to bakeries across the Southeast and as far west as Texas.
Yeast, a fungus, lacks chlorophyll, the green matter that green plants use to make their own food. So yeast has to rely on sugar, from grain, fruit, nectar and molasses. USA yeast uses South American molasses, which arrives by train.
Gene Smith, human resources manager, said that the South American molasses “isn’t over-refined.” Because it has a higher sugar content, it makes better food for the yeast.
And the yeast loves its molasses.
From the petri dishes, workers take a thumb-tack-head sized bit to a test tube, where it grows. Then it’s transferred to a five-pound container and combined with molasses. In some 36 hours, what started out as a dab of yeast has grown enough, feasting on molasses, to fill a two-story fermentation tank. There are three such tanks in the facility.
“Our yeast is a liquid, known as ‘cream’ yeast,” Smith said. “Unlike the packages of yeast you might find in the store.”
Thousands of gallons of “cream” are produced every day, and it takes just one dense, frothy teaspoon of the cream to make a loaf of bread. After completing a complicated process that includes several days of adding vitamins, proteins and other substances, as well as making sure that the yeast has enough oxygen, the creamy mixture is stored, at 34 degrees, in giant cream tanks.
The yeast is now ready to be shipped to bakeries.
On the move
Outside the facility, the shipping process continues as drivers attach hoses to 18-wheel insulated trucks, each of which carries 48,000 pounds of yeast to bakeries in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, but not to any bakeries in Mississippi (though bread made with USA Yeast is shipped back to the state).
USA Yeast, founded in 2003, has some $6.7 million in sales annually. Thirty employees, including scientists and lab technicians, work in the pristine production facilities.
Smith indicated that the company does a lot of testing and monitors the process every step of the way, from the petri dishes to the enormous cream containers to the loading of the trucks.
“Actually, there’s very little hands-on work,” Smith said. “Computer systems do the work, though they have to be constantly monitored.”
Smith added, “We do so much monitoring and checking of quality because once it gets to the bakery, it’s too late.”
Down to the minute
Large, commercial bakeries need to deal with a company such as USA Yeast because they need yeast that is quality-controlled and predictable. The bakeries have to know that every loaf will rise in a given number of minutes because they’re on a rigid baking schedule that never varies.
In baking bread, yeast is used as a “leaven”, a substance that makes dough rise. Sugar is usually added to the dough. The yeast breaks down the sugar into carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. The bubbles in this gas are trapped by a substance in the dough called gluten and, as the gas expands, the gluten stretches and causes the dough to rise. (The alcohol evaporates during baking, which also destroys the yeast.)
In the huge, insulated trucks, Smith said, it’s also crucial to maintain the 34 degree temperature because when yeast gets warm, it starts to rise.
The bakeries use the yeast immediately and not just for bread. Dinner rolls, hamburger buns and sweet rolls also use yeast in the baking process.
USA Yeast’s biggest customer is Flowers Bakery Group in Thomasville, Ga., which distributes Nature’s Own and Bunny Bread.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.