One Cell to Rule Them All: A Simple Approach to Yeast

How often have we heard the saying, "brewers make wort - yeast make beer"?  Obviously it's essential.  But does that mean it needs to be complicated?

Like much else that we've tackled here, I tend to think that the answer is "no."  Yeast are vital to the brewing process, but a great many brewers have worked very hard to make a mystery of yeast.  While I grant that there is much to know and learn about yeast (and I have a well-read copy of the White & Zainasheff book on the shelf behind my head), your yeast handling and use goals can be pretty simple and modest: take this single-celled organism, put it into your wort, and let it make your beer.  You don't need to have the chemical equation for fermentation tattooed to your thigh, or hold a degree in biochemistry, you just need to know how to use yeast in your process.

This week's post is about how I use it, and hopefully you'll find there's a few steps you can cut out and still produce high-quality beer.  We'll cover four elements of yeast use: strain, volume, temperature, and packaging.  

Simply put, though?  I don't think too much about yeast.  I have a process that works.  Sometimes I try something new or fun or different, but I'm more of a hot-side tinkerer (which sounds like a genre of German adult films).  Since I have a lot of respect for what yeast have to do, and since I believe in process as a key to performance, I like to use them pretty much the same way every time so that I can be sure that what is perhaps the most "invisible" (and important) part of the process isn't messing with my results.  And as always, I'll add the caveat that I'm not a biologist: if I'm dead wrong on this, please feel free to explain why in the comments!

Strangers on a Strain

Most brewers I know tend to favor one of two brewing yeast producers - Wyeast and White Labs - and each regularly offers about 50 strains of (generally comparable) brewing yeasts.  I confess that I'm a stranger to most of them, and I'm OK with that.

Trying to learn the strengths, weaknesses, and features of each would be a practical impossibility.  You could try brewing with each yourself, across multiple batches and multiple recipes, taking extensive and detailed notes on each, and utilizing controlled and blinded tasting to verify your findings - but even if you can control for the inherent variability, who the hell has time for that?  You could also try reading reviews of each strain and selecting based on what you read, but there are at least two issues with that strategy: a) your system and fermentation process might yield very different results than those of the reviewers, and b) how can you know that the perceptions of the reviewers are accurate and/or consistent with your definitions and understandings of what are often subjective evaluations (what does "moderate bitterness" even mean, anyway?).  

Here's what I recommend instead: identify a solidly-performing "go to" strain for each of three "beer families," and spend your time learning all of the intricacies of them.  What are these "beer families?"  First, I would suggest having a yeast for your "general" ales - a yeast that produces some moderate and mild esterification, ferments well at slightly warmer temperatures, and "floccs out" (drops out of suspension) promptly.  Second, find a lager yeast that works well for you - clean, complete, and reliable cold-weather fermentation.  Last, find yourself a great Belgian yeast - these strains can produce a wide variety of esters, phenols, and alcohols, and you should test-drive a few and see which combination of flavors you like.

If anyone's curious, I like Wyeast 1007 (German Ale Yeast) for most of my ales - it's a quick ferment, it tolerates warm and cold well so I can use it on my altbiers, and it produces a very pleasant berry ester that seems to pair well with noble and Nugget alike.  I like 2206 (Bavarian Lager) for my lagers thanks to a VERY robust fermentation at even mid-40s Fahrenheit and toleration of the substantial alcohol levels you get in big lagers (think Eisbock at 14%).  And since I'm not a huge Belgian beer fan, I like the 3522 (Belgian Ardennes) for some nice spice and a beautiful pear-orange ester that seems to work with any Belgian recipe I've thrown it at.

How did I settle on those?  And why?  Well, it came from a lot of trial and error.  It also came about because, for a while, I bought into the idea that you needed to tailor your yeast to your recipe - which isn't necessarily bad advice, but it means that I could never really be sure of why a beer might have turned out as it did.  Fewer moving parts made sense, and so I spent some months brewing comparable beers with a few of the "typical" strains for those styles in recipes I had found to be reliable, and taking particular note of the fermentation characters of each.  Once I had one locked in (German Ale became a favorite early on), I'd use it for everything in that family - even a multinational one.  For example, I happily ferment away my Best Bitters with German Ale yeast (which must turn a lot of folks over in their graves in the UK).  That same winter I test-drove the major lager yeasts, and did the same thing.  Ditto the Belgians.  And that was that.  But it took a WHILE.

If I had it to do over again, I'd have split-batched it (say, didn't BYO just have some hack write about that?) and saved myself some time - I recommend you go that route, since it also keeps a lot of other variables constant!

I get that I'm surrendering a little control here.  I may well be missing out on some great yeast-grist combinations.  But I'll trade that for the level of control and reliability I get out of using yeasts I know intimately.  I do still go "rogue" at times and trot out a new yeast into the old carboy, but I can at least do so knowing that if it goes badly I can re-brew with my standby yeasts, and that makes the experimentation more fun and less stressful.

Wait - that's a Starter?

"How much yeast do I need for my lager starter?"

"Use the pitch rate calculator at somebrewingwebsite.net and then double it.  I just made a 6L starter for my 5G dopplebock."

"OK - thanks!"

NOOOOOOOO!!!!  I saw this exchange (paraphrased here - I don't recall it verbatim, but the numbers are right, I swear!!!) on a Facebook discussion not too long ago, and it shocked me.  Good Lord, six liters???  That's a LOT of yeast!  This was one of those dogma days of summer for me, too - when I mentioned that 6L seemed like an awful lot of starter yeast for five gallons, and that I used half of a 2L starter for every beer I make (even 10%+ lagers and hybrids), I was told that clearly I didn't know much about brewing.  Maybe not, guy, but I sure as hell know that I'm not drinking fusel-y, hyper-estery, under-attenuated and buttery sh!t.  

In my experience, brewers are pitching way more yeast than they need to.  Now, some of this may be process - see the next section on Temperature - but for years the only reason I've made a starter at all is to stretch my yeast to two batches from a single pack (liquid yeast is kinda expensive, you know?).  So, I grow up a 2L starter, then split it between two beers that are using the same yeast (and since I tend to brew most beers in the same "family" with the same yeast, there's a lot of opportunity to do so!).  

If you're making a 6L starter for a 5G batch because you think that a Dopplebock just can't be made "cleanly" without it, then I want you to know that that's not necessarily the case.  My 1L starters get rolling quickly, ferment fully and cleanly even at very high alcohol levels, and have plenty of life left at bottle conditioning. 

You might think about starting to walk back your starter sizes, and if you (and those you trust to evaluate your beer - hopefully blind judges in competitions!) aren't noticing a higher rate of undesirable fermentation characters, maybe keep going!  Yeast are pretty robust, and wort wants to be beer.  You want to pitch a reasonable amount - but lots of y'all are pitching one whole beer into another (slightly larger) beer!

Is It Cold In Here or Is It Just Me?

That's a bit of a shameless plug: that heading is the same name as my German Altbier.  For reasons I can't explain, it made me laugh.  But anyway...

Another raging debate I see among brewers revolves around yeast and temperature.  You're welcome to take any tack you like on this, but let me tell you what I do, because a lot of brewing dogma says it shouldn't work that well (though it certainly seems to).

Temp at pitching: Whatever it is after passing through my plate chiller using un-chilled water.  So....groundwater temperature?  A little warmer?  I pitch immediately, oxygenate through a stone for 30-45 seconds, and then stick it in the chest freezer.  I haven't had issue with any consistent off-flavors that could be tied to early-fermentation overheating, and my biologist friends tell me that in the lag phase and shortly thereafter the yeast aren't producing anything I don't want.  So why chill to "just below primary fermentation temperature" as so many advise?  I pitch, then chill.  Seems fine.

Temp for primary: 50F for lagers, 60F for hybrids, 64F for ales.  Your numbers may vary based on yeast strain, but I like to go relatively cold.  If I'm going to have a fault, "too clean" is one I can easily live with.  "Too buttery and plasticky" isn't.  I leave it here for 3-4 days, then start raising the temperature.  If it's a "big" beer (8% ABV or higher) I'll walk it up by 2F/day, but otherwise I'll just spin that little analog temp controller dial all the way up and let 'er rip.  This will have the added benefit of encouraging a complete fermentation and the cleanup of a lot of undesirable compounds and precursors.

Temp in secondary: Who the hell knows?  I don't do it, and don't know of any good reason to.

Temperature definitely matters in fermentation, and I recognize that my relative "underpitching" might be something I get away with because I coddle my yeast a little bit and keep things nice and cool for them, but this process is mine simply because it was easy and always seemed to work, all the way through to...  

Package Time

Again, possibly another good German adult film title.  I know some will think me insane, but I honestly don't mind bottling.  For those who would rather eat the Southbound end out of a Northbound cow than bottle, though, may I propose a small compromise?  Keg most of it, but bottle-condition anything you think you might need in bottles.  For myself, I take a gallon and set aside eight 12oz. bottles (for competition evaluation) and two bombers (for beer club evaluation) out of each batch, no matter how I package the rest.  

So when I do, do I need a fresh pitch of yeast?

Answer: No.  Or, at least, not yet.

When bottle conditioning, we're right to be concerned about our yeast.  They're tired, in an alcohol-toxic environment, and have already done the important fermentation job we've asked of them - now we want to wake them up and make them carbonate the beer, too?  What d**ks we are...

But I've never yet had a group of yeast give up on me.  For every beer, I calculate the priming sugar needed, add it as a simple syrup solution (1 cup of water into x ounces of dextrose, boiled for two minutes), and bottle/cap to completion.  I do this for Kolsch.  I do this for IPA. I do this for 11% ABV Wee Heavy and 8.2% Dopplebock.  Hell, I did it with a two-month old, freeze-concentrated by 40%, 14% ABV Eisbock.  And that thing was good to go (at least on carbonation) two weeks later.

If you're having trouble, check the temperature of wherever you're storing your conditioning bottles.  To ensure mine stay nice and warm I just park them right over a heat vent in the brewery, but you might just pick a relatively warm room (laundry rooms with running dryers are great).  Kept at a few degrees above room temperature (say, at least 68F) I would be willing to bet that you'll have conditioned and carbonated beer in about a week, maybe two if it's a particularly old lager that you're carbonating.

And in exchange, you get a bit of oxygen cleanup, some additional flavor stability, and a dusting of something that will make your non-bottle-conditioned-beer savvy friends have the most exciting gastrointestinal night of their lives when they unknowingly dump the yeast bed into their beer.  You're welcome.

Yeast Simplicity in Four Steps

Let me explain - no, there is no time - let me sum up:

1. Learn a few strains well rather than a dozen strains superficially.  You'll gain more control and confidence over their performance, which to me is a good trade-off.  Yes, I might be losing a potential subtle improvement based on yeast strain selection, but I'm also picking up a potential strain-specific fermentation that strips all the hop aroma out of my Imperial IPA.

2. Make appropriate but not over-the-top starters.  You're not sending your yeast to assault Omaha Beach on D-Day - they'll probably handle the beer just fine, even a high-gravity lager, and even from a single smack pack or vial.  Like I said, I make starters to stretch yeast and cut costs, not because I'm afraid of them being outnumbered.

3. Feel free to pitch warm, but when it comes time to ferment, stay cool, at least at first.  Then let the yeast out to play and let the temperature rise, since they'll also be cleaning up your beer!

4. Consider a small bottling session - and don't sweat your yeast.  Actually, that's wrong - DO sweat them, because warmer temperatures encourage appropriate bottle conditioning, but after they're conditioned go ahead and toss them in the fridge.  But don't sweat that they'll do the job - they're up for it, I promise.

And Barbara, my wife, asked me to pass along this PSA: "Be kind to your yeast."

The more you know...

Keep it simple.

JJW

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