The first home brew shop I walked into in the late ’90s only had two types of generic beer yeast for sale, lager yeast and ale yeast, and both came in the dried form. As if that weren’t bad enough, most packets were out of date (or had no date), so viability was a concern.
Fast forward to today and it’s a tremendously better situation, as home brewers and pro brewers now have access to literally dozens of different yeast strains from many different suppliers, and quality is extremely high. There are also all sorts of new products to help brewers improve efficiency and make better beers.
Beer yeast is a single-celled fungus that metabolizes sugars and produces byproducts such as ethanol, carbon dioxide and various esters and chemicals.
About the time I started home brewing, liquid yeast started to make a greater appearance on the market. It was more expensive than dried yeast and it had to be stored cold, but it fermented beer more thoroughly, it made cleaner beer, and there were more strains available.
Over the years, dried yeast really began to clean up its act, though it still carries the stigma of being less effective than liquid yeast. I’m guilty of feeding into that stigma, as I wouldn’t even consider brewing with dried yeast until just a few years ago. But now I am completely sold on it.
After brewing many batches of beer with dried yeast, I have noticed that my fermentations seem to start just as quickly and run just as vigorously as any liquid yeast I have ever used. Additionally, dried yeast is easier to store (it doesn’t necessarily require refrigeration and it has a longer shelf life than liquid yeast), it ships better (it does not require cold packs), it’s easy to use (it can be easily rehydrated or just sprinkled on the wort), and it’s less expensive than liquid yeast. Whenever I brew high-gravity beers, I often just pitch two packets of dried yeast, which is still less expensive than one pack of liquid yeast.
One negative of dried yeast is that there are not as many strains available, compared to liquid yeast, but that has been changing in recent years, and I foresee more strains becoming available in the future.
A GROWING NUMBER OF YEAST SUPPLIERS
Today there are many yeast suppliers from which to choose. Here are some of them:
Wyeast, located near Hood River, Oregon, offers roughly 40 different ale and lager yeast strains, including Belgian, British, German, American and Irish varieties, plus some specialty strains, including wild yeast blends and bacteria cultures for sour ales and lambics.
Wyeast offers Activator packages that are designed for direct inoculation of 5 gallons of standard gravity wort. The liquid yeast slurry is packaged with a sterile liquid nutrient pouch that, when smacked (hence the nickname “smack packs”), it releases its contents into the yeast slurry and “activates” the package. The available nutrients initiate the culture’s metabolism which in turn generates CO2 and causes swelling of the package. This process will reduce lag times by preparing the yeast for a healthy fermentation prior to inoculation (expansion of the package is an indicator of healthy, viable and vital yeast).
San Diego-based White Labs also offers dozens of yeast strains, including its Platinum Series Strains that it releases throughout the year. One of the coolest things about White Labs is that it has its own brewery and taproom that showcases its yeast strains. The White Labs Tasting Room features a range of beer styles, each of which is made with the same wort but fermented with different yeast strains. When I visited, I tasted a flight of three pale ales (all from the same base beer). One was fermented with California Ale yeast, one with British Ale yeast, and one with Irish Ale yeast. With yeast being the only differing variable, it was amazing how different each one varied on flavor, yeast esters, attenuation and dryness.
Recently, White Labs released its innovative Pure Pitch packages. The yeast is actually cultivated within the proprietary FlexCell packaging, which reduces waste, water, electricity and the need for cleaners (by not having to transfer the yeast from cultivating containers to the packaging), plus it reduces the risk of contamination. The packages come in multiple sizes for home brewers and pro brewers.
Omega Yeast Labs is a newer operation out of Chicago that provides yeast to home brewers and pro brewers. For the pros, it offers a yeast banking service for private strains, and it will even propagate them as needed.
East Coast Yeast is another supplier, though it is more of a small, artisanal operation that focuses on unique and complex strains and blends, including all sorts of wild blends.
The Yeast Bay provides rare yeast and bacteria strains to the home brewing and craft brewing communities in high-quality liquid cultures.
There are also many other suppliers, including GigaYeast, Fermentis, Lallemand, Muntons, Coopers, Real Brewers Yeast, Mangrove Jack’s, and others. Personally, I have had great success using yeast from Fermentis, Lallemand and Mangrove Jack’s. I have not used the others, but I’m sure they all work just fine as well.
The following innovative products seem to benefit home brewers the most, but inspiration, techniques and ideas can trickle upward to pro brewers, especially due to the fact that a good number of home brewers eventually become pro brewers.
The Yeast Wrangling Toolkit from Bootleg Biology, available online through Rebel Brewer, includes everything the experimental home brewer needs to capture wild bugs, create agar plates and isolate wild yeast. Each kit also comes with a Contributor Pack, which allows you to send your culture to Bootleg Biology in a pre-paid envelope. Learn more by watching this YouTube video.
A couple months ago I wrote about Fast Pitch, the first-ever canned wort, which allows homebrewers to make easy, no-boil yeast starters. For brewers (like myself) who hate the extra hassle of making yeast starters, but realize their importance, this product is a true game changer.
Black Man Yeast offers the first-ever dried yeast packets of sour ale blends that contain yeast and bacteria. Each 11-gram packet is formulated to be used for primary fermentation in 5 gallons of 1.055-gravity wort (or less), or in addition to other bugs. As far as I know, Black Man Yeast is the only supplier of dried lactobacillus and pediococcus. (When using pedio, it is recommended to add Brettanomyces yeast as well.)
THE FUTURE OF YEAST
There’s an old adage that says brewers make wort but yeast makes beer. While this may be technically true, brewers must still provide ideal conditions for the yeast, which requires a lot of care, knowledge and skill.
To add, modern brewers know more about yeast today than ever before, and they are becoming increasingly better at pushing it to new limits and guiding it to do exactly what they want it to do. As a result, some of the yeast-derived flavors we taste today have never been tasted by anyone since the first fermented beverage was discovered thousands of years ago.
Exciting research is being done as well, which could raise yeast’s role to an even higher level. Earlier this year, we shared some promising research that could lead to hardier, more-efficient strains of yeast that might produce better tasting beer.
For most beer drinkers, yeast may not be the most exciting beer ingredient to talk about. But aside from water, it is by far the most important ingredient. After all, beer has been made without hops and it has been made without malted barley, but no beer has ever been made without yeast, including the beers that were made before Louis Pasteur “discovered” yeast.