Handle Yeast at Home Like a Pro

Working in the cellar at Founders Brewing Company often finds me shoulder to shoulder with the Yeast Tech department. Their department, as you may have guessed, is entirely responsible for the care, maintenance, and practical application of any and all yeast used in the brewery. For emphasis, a beer is not released for consumption without their labor-intensive checks and balances that ensure the quality of a vitally important ingredient in the beer-making process. To make beer at home like a professional means we should emulate the practices of a professional. How can we do that? Or, how can we do that without the high-tech equipment and completely sterile work environment of a large scale brewery? To form a kind of answer to that question, I spoke with Jim Knight, Lead Yeast Tech at Founders, about his advice for home brewers.

“Clean, Clean, Clean,” were the first words out of his mouth when I broached the subject. In a past article, I talked about the importance of cleanliness and sanitation. Let’s say it’s doubly important when it comes to handling yeast correctly, and I’ll spare you a speech. However, as Knight stressed, clean environments breed happy yeast which make the best possible beer. Knight went on to propose that there are three things home brewers should be sure of before adding yeast to each batch of beer. Below, I list the three factors of focus, as well as helpful tips, tricks, and links to sources that will help you make the most of your yeast in the future.

  1. Freshness Ranking among the easiest of things for a home-brewer to check, the expiration date for any yeast culture is often clearly labeled and should be checked before purchase. Fresh yeast is happy yeast. Say you pick up a culture of two month out-of-date yeast, you might think of it like an exhausted workforce. A tired worker may still get the job done, though likely not in a timely fashion, or well. Exhausted yeast may manifest itself in heavy doses of phenolic flavors tainting the flavor of your beer. An expiration date check should accompany every yeast purchase.
  2. Correct Yeast Dose Now, just because your yeast is fresh, doesn’t mean you have enough in your packet or vial to ferment the beer you’re trying to make. Continuing the work-force metaphor, say you have half the amount of people show up to work as you were expecting, likely you won’t expect them to get a job done very well, in a timely fashion, or with zeal. Having half the yeast you need for a batch of beer can result in a host of negatives that might have easily been avoided by simply making sure you have enough yeast for the job. There are two ways to make sure you have enough yeast: longhand arithmetic, or using Mr. Malty’s free calculator. This calculator allows you to input the simple parameters of your recipe to ensure that each batch of beer you make has been dosed to perfection. There is even a function that allows you to account of the freshness of the yeast purchased! Neat-O!
  3. Vitality This category is a bit tougher to describe, but let’s continue on with the worker analogy to get us there. Let’s now assume all of your workforce showed up, and, better yet, they’re fresh off their weekend. The only thing you might hope from such an ideal circumstance is that your workforce is excited to perform the task at hand. A workforce that is “hyped” is very likely to get their job done and done very well. The easiest way we can “hype” up yeast at home is to make a yeast starter. The primary function of a starter is to ensure that yeast is happy, healthy, and “hyped,” or active, before being added to your beer. Bonus, a starter will actually help to grow more yeast from an original culture so making starters may help alleviate the expense of buying multiple vials of yeast for those high gravity or lager batches. Now, there are many ways to make a starter, but I think the advice from the one of the largest Yeast providers in the nation has quite a bit of merit. I have distilled that advice here.

For those who’d like an even more in-depth look at the technical side of yeast, you can read all the information in addition to preparing yeast starters. For those seeking something more in-depth than that, pick up “Yeast” by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff. Their book informed much of this article and may well be the definitive written work on the subject. Again, to make beer like a professional, one must emulate the professionals. Happy brewing!

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