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Jun 08, 2022 View:

Yeast Making

Back before Prohibition, before the rise of the "master distiller" as we know them today, the people who made whiskey were often referred to as "distiller and yeast maker." Booker Noe used to tell the story about his grandfather, Jim Beam, making yeast on the back porch of his house in Bardstown. That yeast is still used to make Jim Beam bourbon.

If your intention is to be a craft distiller, making your own yeast would seem like something you would want to do, yet I have not heard of anyone attempting it. You don't 'make' yeast, of course, you capture and propagate it. In the old days, before there were commercial yeast manufacturers, every distiller had his own secret yeast mash recipe and yeast-making technique.

Sour mash, which most mircrodistillers also do not use, was developed as a way to control yeast and make it perform consistently from batch to batch.

Most of the old timers who are still around will tell you that handling yeast is one of a distiller's most important skills, the first thing you are taught, because if you can't master that you shouldn't bother with the rest. They're mostly talking about propagating an existing jug yeast for production, not making it from scratch, but few if any microdistillers do either.

I ask bourbon distillers about this from time to time. I once asked a member of the Beam family if he thought there was anyone still living who knew how to do it. He thought for a long time and said "maybe."

So, who is up for a challenge?


Reply:

Many distilleries are still growing a propagating their yeast. Four Roses in Lawrenceburg KY active talks about the process.

It is really no different that beer yeast propagation other than the fact that they often start from known slants of yeast. From that single slant they do a liter, then a stage it larger and larger in reactor using an excess of filtered air and usually barley beer as a medium, until the volume of yeast needed is ready to pitch.

The book "The Homebrewer's Companion" Charles Papazian (Author) gives a small scale but scalable method of yeast propagation and storage.

I forgot to add, if you use a culture that is from central KY or TN and even west PA, you will get the best Lacto-bacillus culture. Just as it takes a particular culture to make sourdough, the whiskey flavor is affected by this lact culture also. Strains for bread an whiskey are significantly different.


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Yes, Beam, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and others propagate a jug yeast rather than using dry yeast. That's one thing. I'm talking about doing it from scratch with wild yeast, which no one has done for decades.

They used to talk about "scientific distillers" versus "practical distillers," and the distinction was whether or not you made your yeast from scratch.


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The technique for going from wild yeast is not that difficult. The problem is that wild yeast, even though usable, is a slightly different strain. The beer yeast is a particularly isolated strain which is very productive and is bred for less off flavors. The wild yeast is a mixture of several and extremely unpredictable. Dr. Crow did lots of research on this subject in the interest of making whiskey consistent.

Many hundreds of different yeasts have been isolated and cultured.

Even the old timer continued to try until they found a productive yeast with a good enough flavor profile. They were extremely protective of them. After that first trial an error period though, it came back to jug yeast again. They were even rumored to sleep with the jug to prevent it from freezing.

I would dare believe that some of those jugs came all the way from Ireland or Scotland and may be the basis or the really great whiskeys. Of course these have been isolated, propagated, and turned right back into jug yeast using scientific methods. During the 1950's this was cutting edge work with all the new electron microscopes becoming available to the distilling industry.

I couldn't imagine any small producer having the spare time or money to reproduce this effort. With large companies especially dedicated to yeast technologies, it is a matter of calling them up and making a request for a yeast that will do what you want.


Reply:

Yes, Beam, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and others propagate a jug yeast rather than using dry yeast. That's one thing. I'm talking about doing it from scratch with wild yeast, which no one has done for decades.

They used to talk about "scientific distillers" versus "practical distillers," and the distinction was whether or not you made your yeast from scratch.


Reply:

Yes, Beam, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and others propagate a jug yeast rather than using dry yeast. That's one thing. I'm talking about doing it from scratch with wild yeast, which no one has done for decades.

They used to talk about "scientific distillers" versus "practical distillers," and the distinction was whether or not you made your yeast from scratch.


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We're, as I believe you know, Mr. Cowdery, using wild yeast and acetobacter and lactobacillus for a secondary fermentation.

I think it's a lovely idea to use a wild yeast for primary fermentation, and for those of you who have seen the Discovery Channel series that follows Dogfish Head Brewery, recall that Floris Delee, their Master Brewer (Dipl. Eng, I believe) took petri dishes to Egyptian date "orchards" to try and catch some wild yeast. So it's been done/tried recently.

We'd have to go out to corn or rye fields, Mr. Cowdery, for the project to make any sense (if we did it at the distillery, we'd just recatch our own yeast), but I think that we could try this over the spring/summer.

Sounds fun. I'll keep you posted.


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I already have a photographic essay on starting a lacto-bacillus and yeast culture on my website. If you would care to see it check out

http://www.artisan-distiller.net/photoalbum/main.php?cmd=album&var1=pint_o_shine%2Fsour_corn/&var2=0

Comments are at the bottoms of the photos, click on the first picture and then use the next link.


Reply:

Four Roses actually makes ten different bourbon recipes, using five different yeasts and two different mash bills, and while they may propagate the old fashioned way, their yeast is 'scientific' to the n-th degree, coming from the Seagrams portfolio of 350 proprietary yeasts.

The Belgians and Mexicans use what you might call "semi-wild" yeast. As Denver Distiller points out, if you capture wild yeast in the middle of a brewery or distillery, you're just re-capturing your own yeast.

Granted, all practical considerations argue against it, but we're talking about craft here, aren't we? Don't at least some of you guys call yourselves "craft distillers"?


Reply:

Four Roses actually makes ten different bourbon recipes, using five different yeasts and two different mash bills, and while they may propagate the old fashioned way, their yeast is 'scientific' to the n-th degree, coming from the Seagrams portfolio of 350 proprietary yeasts.


Reply:

I played around with cultivating wild yeast at my old place. In most cases it did not work well, and I was unwilling, in time and lost batches, to keep experimenting to improve the yeast. The only time it worked was the first time, which was with hard cider and then a brandy, made from fresh apples, crushed and pressed at a local orchard. That was actually an accident. We picked up the 55 gallon drums of fresh juice, brought them back to the winery, and filled up the 500 gallon tank. Then there was some mis-communication and we each thought the other had pitched the yeast. It was fermenting for a few days before we realized the mistake. I tasted it and it was better than the batch from the year before, so we let it continue. Then when we bottled we ran out of glass and I distilled the last and ended up with five gallons that I aged. Both the cider and the brandy were very good. But when I tried to replicate it again in small batches, the cider, and rum wash, were horrible.


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Neat stuff, Mr. Forester. I would've liked to try that wild yeast brandy!


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Spontaneous fermentation is more a problem to be avoided than a path to greatness, and Jonathan knows how rare such happy accidents are. However, the ability to capture and propagate a robust strain that produces a lot of alcohol of a unique and enjoyable flavor, that's a remarkable skill. I think anyone who aspires to unlock the secrets of the ancients would find the challenge irresistible. Do you really want to concede that, in this area, science has trumped craft?


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Skill has little to do with it. It is mostly environment. Like I said, central KY, TN, West PA. It is all in the locality.

Seems you are not listening Mr. Chowdery.


Reply:

Skill has little to do with it. It is mostly environment. Like I said, central KY, TN, West PA. It is all in the locality.

Seems you are not listening Mr. Chowdery.


Reply:

Let's mellow out a bit here, and keep the discussion civil.

It has been shown that yeasts do have 'terroir', different areas have yeasts that naturally occur, that have different characteristics. In history this was seen in parts of Europe with wine and beer making. Here in the US, whiskey country with bourbon. In a different direction, San Francisco with sourdough bread. One starts with the naturally occurring yeasts, then the 'art' part is improving the strains, which is done through hard scientific controls.

If one has the ability, equipment, and time; you can develop your own yeast, starting with the 'wild' naturally occurring yeasts. Whether one wants to is an individual question. If I can, I will. I have the skills and can get the knowledge, but it will be a side project; not something I'm betting my whole business on.


Reply:

Now you're just being rude. When you're making broad, unsupported and unsupportable claims, you can at least spell my name right.

Do you mean to tell me that all of the old time distillers and yeast makers, working cheek to jowl in the tiny community of Nelson County, Kentucky, all had the same results?

You, Sir, are not to be taken seriously.


Reply:

Respectfully, there's more to yeast handling than just environment. Sherman is absolutely right that the yeast needs to be there in the 1st place.

But. Some yeasts mutate more than others. How much o2 to you give it? How many times, in the case of jug yeasts, do you top it off? What temp do you pitch it? What's the max temp that will get the best out of the yeast? Do you repitch it? If so, how long until it mutates? Are the mutations good for the whiskey?

That where the art comes in, although you can add as much science, hemacytomers, staining agents, etc. as you wish to that art.

I'll never forget my third day at a small brewery I worked at in Bamberg. The owner/brewer didn't speak a word of english, but I asked him where his lab/microscope was. He looked at me, smiled, and dipped his fingers in a pail of yeast he was holding and tasted the yeast. He smiled.

Well, that was it. I swore off microscopes, and have never used one outside of brewing school. It can be done. SImple yardsticks that you need to do regardless of the use of microscopes can tell you what you need to know. Things like how many hours does it take to get the ferment to 5 plato? Or what does the liquid yeast smell and taste like?

Took me a while to get used to working with yeast that doesn't have hop resins or cold trub in it, that's for sure.


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What I know about the way the old timers did it in Kentucky and Tennessee is this. Each had a proprietary yeast mash recipe. They were mostly malt, with little or no corn (ironically), plus ingredients such as sulfur and hops. The typical container was a bucket. Then they picked a place and waited. When it started to work, they judged it by sight, smell, and taste. Maybe even sound for all I know, but they didn't use mircoscopes. If they didn't like it, they dumped it out and tried again. They didn't modify the mash -- they knew that worked because it was the recipe their daddy used -- but they might change location. They knew it was largely a trial-and-error process, certainly as much luck as skill, but to say skill had nothing to do with it is ridiculous.

If they liked the initial action of the yeast, they started to propagate it. If it propagated well, which means it seemed robust and retained its characteristics (which meant it wasn't mutating too much), they would try pitching it into a whiskey mash, again in a test quantity. They scaled up from there.

They did this not because they fancied themselves as artisans. They did it because they didn't have a choice. Their alternative wasn't commercial yeast, it was spontaneous fermentation, which is what they were trying to avoid.

So I can accept why no one does this today. Even the people who still use jug yeast use jug yeast that is scientifically supported. I would think that the impulse to make it from scratch is the same as the impulse to make bread from scratch in an era when you can go to the store and buy good bread.

Two parallels that reach different conclusions might be malting and milling. Kentucky and Tennessee do not have any tradition of people doing their own malting. They didn't malt because they didn't have to. Acceptable malt was always readily available. Yet they always did their own milling and still do. Why? Either because millers couldn't supply the grind they wanted or because millers couldn't supply distilleries cost-effectively.

I admit this has a romantic appeal for me but if you want to recapture some of what has been lost in the industrialization of distilling, how better?


Reply:

I think that's a nice romantic idea Chuck, but what happens if you live in an area that doesn't have good whiskey yeast? Do you just give it up?

You mentioned high alcohol yeast. I'm sure Denver Distiller will correct me, but I don't think many wild yeasts are considered high alcohol. Even naturally occurring wild fruit yeast I think give 2-3%. Maybe grapes will do better, I don't know.

I remember watching a video from one of the big distilleries in KY. A couple Beams were talking about their fermentation process and how they got 6% ABV out of their wash/mash with their yeast. If 6% is good enough for Beams it'd be good enough for me. I think high alcohol production is overrated for what we do. Well if you want to make vodka it's great to let the yeast produce 20% ABV; it's a great savings in energy. At least that's the way I think, which could be just plain wrong, so I wouldn't put much credence in what I say.

I agree that there's a lot practical to learn about yeast, and I know I can learn a lot more. Maybe Chuck is complaining that maybe a lot of distillers seem to just hydrate fresh yeast every ferment.


Reply:

I just read an interesting paper that looked at the cooperation between brewers yeast and distillers yeast to produce higher alcohol yield but more importantly, higher concentrations of flavorful lactones in mashes. From what I can tell most smaller distillers are either using dry pitch distiller's yeast exclusively or that combined with a sour mash lactic fermentation. The study found that the presence of brewers yeast in malt whiskey fermentations led to higher concentrations of lactones specific to fruity and fatty flavors, and well above sensory thresholds.

Not quite on topic to the Chuck's idea of wild culturing but definitely goes to the idea that there is much room for a variety of organisms and some exploration of flavor profiling with multiple organisms. If you wild culture and get a stable fermentation and flavor profile you are probably getting cocultures of yeast and bacteria that are mutually supporting. Yeast and lacto bacteria are great at this. I've done some work with fruit spirits where the first step is a wild fermentation with the yeast that comes in on the fruit, followed by a commercial yeast pitch. This definitely leads to a broader flavor profile but of course can also lead to variation in the product.

While it's true that the labs have done a great job of narrowing down certain traits, what they can't do is package cocultures that are stable enough to survive a single fermentation, so they don't bother. The single yeast high yield ferment can limit the flavor compounds that end up in the mash, and their real priority is a hardy yeast strain that is consistent, with a good yield, beats out other microbes when pitched, relatively easy to propagate in the labs, and with a predictable flavor profile. There are certainly differences in profiles of their yeasts but not nearly the broad array of flavors you'd get with a non-lab yeast/bacteria coculture. As stated by others the real magic is in keeping it stable but of course it's possible with enough time and attention.


Reply:

We've been using multiple strains for single pitches for years now. For the very reasons you cited.... using a combination of brewer's strains and distillers. It yields much more complex congeners, obviously.

Respectfully, sour mashing isn't a direct fermentation process. Not when executed in any manner I'm familiar with... We're getting a secondary fermentation from lactic acid producing bacteria, but not because we employ a sour mash process. It rides in with the grains.... specifically the malt.


Reply:

When I mentioned sour mashing I was referring to the practice of keeping some of the finished mash and adding it to the next mash, thereby keeping the same lactic acid bacteria and other desirable bacteria consistent in the long term.


Reply:

That's not sour mashing. Sour mashing involves adding stillage from the still to a new mash. There isn't any active lactic ac. bac., as it's been boiled.


Reply:

That's not sour mashing. Sour mashing involves adding stillage from the still to a new mash. There isn't any active lactic ac. bac., as it's been boiled.