Ah, yeast: the final stage of a brew day; those crazy chunks of crud swirling in my wort, eager little TIE fighters taking on the hazy, brown universe; the funky-looking sludge in the bottom of my carboy; the culprit behind the crusty scum on the inside top of my fermentors; some of my best friends.
It’s funny, you know. A guy can go to all kinds of work during a brew day…poring over your undoubtedly over-thought recipe, achieving the perfect grain crush, hitting those mash temps perfectly, being crazy and conducting triple decoctions (been there, still waiting for the damned T-shirt), beautifully boiling, not dropping the hops all over the floor of the garage, chilling quickly, carefully whirlpooling, gently racking into the fermentor, appropriately oxygenating the wort, and making sure to get a nice little homebrew buzz on at the same time (most important part, right?)…blah, blah, blah. So, you get all that done, doing everything you can to create gorgeous and delicate wort, something that should result in the best beer ever to be brewed on this planet. Then, you reach into the fridge, pull out a Mason jar of this harvested yeast slurry you’ve been hanging onto for a few months since the last time you used this strain, and you pitch. You kick back, forgetting your worries, relaxing, having a homebrew, all that…who’s been there? I have. Never again.
I should clarify. I definitely plan to kick back and enjoy my beer, but certainly not after pitching tired, possibly mutated yeast lacking in vitality and viability. That was a mistake with results such as my first Brown Porter finishing under-attenuated…too sweet and out of balance. Drinkable but, come on, we’re shooting for awesome craft beer, not something that we drink just because of the trouble we went to make it! Harvesting yeast and re-pitching into future batches has been responsible for some of my most mediocre beers – and a disaster or two. Now, before anyone out there gets riled up and starts to go off on how harvesting yeast saves them money and can result in great beers, let me state the following: re-pitching harvested yeast – or pitching fresh wort on a yeast cake – can certainly work, and it can also result in great beer. What I’m saying is that this did not work for me.
Why was it a terrible option for me? I like to make many different styles of beer. I’m not the guy that only brews IPAs or ESBs, reusing the same strain or two every time I make beer. I do brew every week or two, so it could be possible – if I was content to drink the beers with the same yeast all the time – to go ahead and harvest yeast and use it for several generations. That’s not me, though. This weekend, I’m brewing a Brown Porter with Wyeast 1028 London Ale. Last weekend, it was an American Brown Ale, using Wyeast 1764-PC Pacman. Before that, there was a Belgian Dubbel, an Imperial IPA, an American Amber, a Bohemian Pilsner, etc. After this weekend, I’m going to go on a Belgian and German wheat beer kick for several brew days. I enjoy brewing a wide variety of beer and utilizing a many yeast strains to accomplish certain goals with each beer.
Am I saying that a brewer should go and buy fresh yeast packs or vials every time he wants to brew? Uh, yes, if you have the cash to spend $10-$20 just on yeast for each brew. Also, the problem with buying those yeast packs is that they do not always contain the massive quantity of yeast cells required to brew an awesome beer. If you want to eliminate the risk of fermentation off-flavours from under-pitching yeast, you’re forced to build up a starter culture. I did that for a while, and it worked. Then, I met a guy who was running – get this – a yeast lab in his fridge. Huh. That sounded really complicated. Inoculation loops, alcohol lamps, test tubes, pressure cookers…it looked really cool, but I certainly don’t have a degree in microbiology.
Problem? No. With a little help from my friends – and some time spent reading a little literature – I was able to acquire the materials and skills required to set up a rather bad-ass yeast lab. Now, I have access to over 30 strains of yeast at any time. That, combined with a rather wide assortment of hops and malt, allows me to brew nearly any style of beer at any time…even when it’s -30C outside. You have to love Canada. I can attest to the fact that setting up a functional lab is not nearly as daunting as you might fear. It takes some cash up front, as there are materials integral to the operation: Erlenmeyer flasks of assorted sizes, stir plate(s), test tubes, pressure cooker, an incubator, etc. Also, you have to purchase the yeast strains in order to snag a little to start growing on your agar wort – or ‘steal’ a strain from a friend who is brewing with that strain!
Of course, the lab will pay for itself, once you’ve brewed beers and saved the cost of purchasing packs of yeast each time. There is, however, also a time demand. You’re not just stepping up a smack pack into a litre…you’re going from a tiny glob into 10mLs, then into 100mLs, then into 1000mLs…or something like that, depending on your intended pitching rate. You have to plan ahead a few days, giving your yeast time to propagate appropriately. There’s also a little upkeep two or three times a year to make sure your cultures are fresh – but, we’re talking about an afternoon’s work to make sure your yeast are happy, healthy, and eager to make the best beer possible!
This is a fantastic way to keep on hand a large quantity of yeast strains – or, at least, those you enjoy using – for use any time…this is especially awesome when it comes to special release strains. Who wants to wait for the one time every year or two a strain gets released? I demand instant yeast gratification! So, I could write you a novel here detailing every part of setting up a yeast lab and actually running it effectively, but it’s much easier – and far, far cooler – to see it in action. Stay tuned to our YouTube channelfor future yeast video uploads to learn everything you need to know for all aspects of setting up and running a kick-ass home yeast lab!