How One Craft Brewery Tells a Story of Life and Death in Beer

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DeWayne Schaaf enters the taproom of Ebb and Flow Fermentations in downtown Cape Girardeau, Missouri, pours a tulip of dark reddish-brown ale and a glass of water, and sets the drinks down on the table before collapsing into a low-slung leather armchair. The beer is for me, seated on the couch across from him. The water is for him. 

“Forgive my sobriety today,” says Schaaf. “It was a long weekend.”


Schaaf has just returned from St. Louis, 120 miles up the Mississippi River, where he poured Ebb and Flow beers at a festival featuring experimental brews from all over the Midwest. Yes, he attributes part of his sluggishness to sampling, perhaps, a bit too much of his fellow brewers’ wares. He also might just be winded from repeating the story behind the beers he served—including the same Belgian-inspired tart sour, named Barncat, that sits sweating before me—to hundreds of inquisitive festivalgoers.


Storytelling is vital to Ebb and Flow, a mixed-fermentation brewery that uses wild yeast, lactic acid bacteria and other microbes in addition to traditional brewer’s yeast to produce unconventional flavors, including beet sours, Belgian ales finished on dandelions and barrel-aged cucumber-and-dill blondes, for example. Schaaf and his crew must educate curious and often skeptical drinkers about what their beers are and how they are made. He also finds that it often helps to explain why they are made. 

The tale behind Barncat and its sibling beers is especially dear to Schaaf. He discovered the wild yeast strain that gives life to those beers in his backyard. That strain is also one of the only living connections to his father that Schaaf has left.

By all accounts, Robert Schaaf was a character. Raising his family in conservative 1980s small-town Missouri, he loved Motown music and dressed in drag for Halloween. He leaned into his ne’er-do-well reputation by giving himself the nickname Tomcat. “Dad always challenged us not to take anything at face value,” says Schaaf. “We’d get grief for not being imaginative. He told us, Don’t just think outside of the box—destroy the box. You have plenty of other things to work with.”

This philosophy translated directly into Schaaf’s fascination with beer. After leaving film school to come home and help his recently laid-off father, Schaaf got into cooking and picked up shifts as a bartender. Ever the tinkerer, he started homebrewing and gravitated toward the spontaneous and mixed fermentation in Belgian styles, particularly lambics, which are imbued with funky flavors that develop from exposure to wild yeasts. Schaaf joined a Facebook group called Milk the Funk, where hobbyists and pros swap recipes, techniques and sometimes actual yeast strains. Schaaf became aware of a Norwegian family of yeasts called kveik, which he then started experimenting with at home before championing them online and shipping to more than 250 brewers all over the world.

It wasn’t long before Schaaf was in his backyard in Cape Girardeau, hunting for yeast strains by picking flowers and collecting pine cones. The invisible process piqued his imagination. “When you’re in the world of fermentation, there’s a concept of floating organisms all around you that we have symbiotically harnessed to make this social lubricant,” says Schaaf. “We’ve developed it into something we use to celebrate life, to celebrate death, and to help us forget pain.”

In April 2015, Schaaf’s father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Schaaf sought refuge in his own backyard. He brewed up a 5-gallon batch of wort, added hops to fend off bacteria, and poured the boil into hotel cooking pans as a makeshift open-fermentation vessel (what he calls a “hillbilly coolship”). He covered it with a cheesecloth to keep out leaves and other detritus, and let it sit overnight, collecting microbes from the breeze blowing off the Mississippi River. The next day, he funneled out the liquid and capped it off. After a couple of days, he noticed light foaming. When his wife left for work in the morning, Schaaf set up a makeshift aseptic lab in his home, where he decanted the liquid, built up the culture a couple of times and started to notice white specks that, once he plated it out on a petri dish, gradually grew into globules. He sent samples to microbiologist friends on Milk the Funk, who confirmed his hope: Schaaf had discovered and isolated a single-strain monoculture, a new yeast. He called his find Tomcat.

Robert died five months later. 

Schaaf had projected his father’s spirit onto this living microorganism, and now he wanted to share that spirit. To bring his vision to life, he looked to Germany, where his father’s family had come from and where he had been stationed by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. The elder Schaaf had always talked about returning with Schaaf’s mother, but never made it. Now, Schaaf felt like it was his mission to fulfill that promise. He got on Milk the Funk and found Benedikt Koch, a brewer in Leipzig, Germany, who agreed to use Tomcat to make a kellerbier—sending his father, in essence, back to the fatherland.

Meanwhile, Schaaf aspired to open his own brewery back in Cape Girardeau. In 2018, after 20 years as executive chef at a local restaurant, he bought the eatery and rented a building just a few blocks away, which he opened as a craft beer bar. Within a year, he was ready to start brewing at the bar. But when Ebb and Flow Fermentations finally opened in March 2019, something was missing. Schaaf had been so busy with his family, as well as buying one business and starting another, that he hadn’t found time to rebuild Tomcat, which over the years had lost too many living cells to remain viable. The yeast strain was essentially spent and could no longer be used to brew beer.

When you’re in the world of fermentation, there’s a concept of floating organisms all around you that we have symbiotically harnessed to make this social lubricant.

Ebb and Flow Fermentations has been a remarkable success, especially considering its far-flung concept in a town of less than 40,000. But perhaps the proximity of countryside and the rural roots of many of its customers help them appreciate the brewery’s dedication to über-local ingredients that shift with the seasons. And the intimacy of the setting and familiarity with the clientele enable more one-on-one conversations between patron and publican—the storytelling at the heart of the endeavor. 

But one important story had always been missing.

In 2022, Schaaf was invited to Brussels to talk to a conference about Mud King, a blend of 30 wild cultures to which he had contributed. While there, he bumped into Koch, who mentioned he still had an isolated strain of Tomcat. Elated, Schaaf arranged for the two to meet last June in Amsterdam, at Carnivale Brettanomyces, where Koch handed over a cooler containing the yeast. Schaaf carefully brought it back to Missouri and used it to gradually build up another culture. 

Ebb and Flow debuted the first beer made with the strain, which he also called Tomcat, in October. Since then, Schaaf has used the versatile yeast to brew Tablecat, a lighter, grassier blonde ale; Hopcat, an American pale ale; and Barncat, a tarter Belgian-inspired country ale finished on raspberries.

Behind the bar in the Ebb and Flow taproom, on a shelf crowded with bottles and books about mixed fermentation, there is a sun-faded photograph of three young men drinking beer at a table in Germany. The man in the middle is a young soldier, Robert Schaaf. And from this perch, the old man, the original Tomcat, can watch his son retell his story, which lives on in the eponymous beer. “Not all Ebb beers taste the same,” says Schaaf. “But there’s definitely a common feel among our beers. They’re each a story in liquid form.”



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