Sunday, January 13, 2008

Yeast Starters

My buddy Ed has been brewing for years, and was definitely part of the inspiration for me to start brewing myself. He also has a way with words.

Before my first batch, I had asked him a bunch of questions about things that I thought were important, but were really just stupidly obvious that I hadn't brewed a batch yet questions. One of the things that I hadn't given any thought to at that point was pitching yeast. Everything I've read has stated that homebrewers are notoriously bad about pitching the proper amount of yeast. Indeed, some of the homebrew forums I've read have had "experienced" brewers telling newbies that it's fine to spend four hours brewing and then sprinkle a god-knows-how-old packet of dry yeast on their precious brew. Invariably, there are questions by the newbies a few days later about their "stuck" fermentation. Really, it's not stuck. They just pitched some crappy yeast. I'll let Ed take it from here:

"OK, first things first. The most important thing about getting the results you want from the beer making process is the health of your yeast. NOTHING is as important as the health of your yeast. All of my brewing has led me to become some sort of demented mother hen for a bunch of bacteria. Every thing you do in the primary brewing process should be thought of in terms of how productive a yeast colony you can.

First off, I love starters. I tell everyone to use a starter. If you transition from brewing without a starter (as I did) to using one religiously (the ONLY way I brew now), you will weep tears of joy at the reduction in frequency of bad batches and loss of time, effort, and expensive ingredients. If right off the bat you brew with starters, I dunno, you'll think this hobby is too easy or something! The starter is going to be sort of like a nice little kiddie pool for your yeast to get their shit sorted out before you dump them in to the ocean that is 5 gallons of beer."

As Ed went on to say the last time we hung out: brewing, even if you're doing extract brewing, is a lot of work. It also costs money. If you're going to do all that work, and you can do something that is only slightly more work that causes you to increase your chances of success, why not do it?

Make a starter. All the cool kids are doing it.

In brewing news: next weekend will be exciting. Assuming all my stuff arrives on time, I (along with my new brew assistants Mike and Babak) will be brewing my first all grain batch. We'll be doing a Vienna lager. WOO HOO!


Travis said...

I have gone back and forth on starters for a while now. I used to never use them, I I didn't have any problems. When I began using them, I found that they tended to get things started more quickly, but I was always asking my self 'is it worth it?' The argument Ed makes about the cost and time rapped up into it is the most compelling argument I have heard. It is a lot of time, and if you are extract brewing, it's a lot of money. Making a starter is a little work to ensure that you are pitching a good yeast.

Brian said...

Personally I'm a fan of starters, but am on the same page as Travis as I never had much problem with pitching a straight smack pack into the brew...for me it's just one more thing to mess around with and keeps the process that more interesting.

I think that in many cases folks who are proponents of pitching large starters, and argue that the amount of yeast that most homebrewers utilize are insufficient stem from reading "Designing Great Beers"..I'm actually thankfull that I did not read the yeast section until I had a few batches under my certainly assisted in me being able to chill out, or at least have one less thing to worry about...good or bad you decide.

Good luck with your first all grain batch, looking forward to reading your posting on that.

Kevin LaVoy said...

It can be tough to have one more thing to mess around with, especially on brew day. And there is definitely more than enough to mess around with on brew day.

From my perspective, I just try and do it the night before. I also scored a stir plate for free, and I feel if I'm going to have this excellent piece of equipment in my pantry, I have to use it. Otherwise it's just taking up space.

Brian, it's funny that you mentioned Designing Great Beers. As I just finished that chapter. I think everyone should probably have at least a couple brews under their belt before they read that.

As far as this weekend, my brew all depends on my ingredients showing up in time. Also, it's supposed to be 12 degrees in Chicago this weekend, so a small part of me hopes it doesn't get here, as I brew outside. We'll see...

Brian said...

definetely use that stir plate as planned, thats a project I've had on the backburner for a while now and really would like to diy one soon..

Your correct, it's going to be brutal this weekend here in Chicago..would make a pretty good story for throwing down your first all-grain right, nothing is more memorable than losing appendages in the name of good home brewing :)

"E" said...

I have been a long time proponent of using starters and would encourage everyone to do so. But, I would also add that the quality of dried yeast has improved dramatically since I first started brewing and will produce quality beer. If that stir plate doesn't work out for you I'd be happy to take it off your hands :)

Cheers and good luck!

gplavoy said...

The Big Lebowski is one of the worst movies of all time. I hope your beer is better than that awful movie; hell, opening the cap to your beer with a bottle opener is more entertaining than sitting down to watch that excrutiatingly execrable film.

Freak said...

Recently, I had to convince "E" that dry yeast is OK. He has always been a starter man (and a good one) and I have always been a fly by the seat of the pants brewer. Dry, liquid, it never seemed to make a difference to me. I guess I got that way because, back in the mid 90's, I was the President of the Raccoon River Brewers in Des Moines (40-50 member club that is still alive today and a good one). I went to our meetings and listened to all these dudes say how important it was to do this and how important it was to do that. They always made a huge issue out of nothing. The thing is, I didn't bother with any of that crap and consistently turned out good beer. The point I am trying to make is that you can try way too hard to do things that will never make a difference and take the fun out of brewing. Don't get me wrong, I still try to make things more complicated than they need to be. "E" always gives me a hard time about muti-step mashing with 5 or 6 freaking rests and he is right. You just don't need to take all those extra steps. It is a waste of time in most cases. The grain and the yeast these days is modified and of such high quality that, if you are the least bit skilled at brewing, you will turn out good beer every time. Sure you can change one good flavor to another good flavor but, don't fool yourself. It is all good beer. As for dry yeast, I have used it for years. I have also used liquid yeast for years. I can't tell the difference! Maybe it is because I don't possess the senses that it requires to tell the difference. I'm not sure. What I do know is that all good beer is good and all bad beer is bad. I have had some bad ones too. I have judged beers in contests and some of those fuckers are bad! I have been lucky that only the first 2 or 3 batches that I made were bad. Since then it has all been good and it did not matter if I used dry or liquid yeast. It did not matter if I used extract, partial mashes or all grain. It did not matter if I mashed at 152 instead of 158 or 145 instead of 150. It did not matter if I did a protein or acid rest or not. What mattered was that I followed the basic fundamentals of brewing. Extract sugar from grain, hop it while boiling and ferment it in a clean container. That is all there is to it. It is just that simple. If you do those 3 things you will always end up with a good beer every time. That comes from 17 years of experience (14 all grain). That is my story and I'm sticking to it.

Brew On and Freak Out!


"E" said...