A Big Shout Out for Yeast

Beer labels with tasting notes rarely mention yeast. They usually say “malty with a hoppy finish” or “hoppy with a malty finish” or some variation thereon. Stella Artois is apparently made without it. Is that because “yeasty” just sounds nasty to most people?

In our experience, though, the impact of yeast on beer is too big to ignore. The extent to which it devours sugars affects the body and mouthfeel of the beer; and the compounds it produces while doing so contribute aroma and flavour. A lot of aroma and flavour. Sometimes most of it, in fact, as in the case of banana-bubblegum Bavarian wheat beer. (The standard learning tool for aspiring beer geeks who want an obvious example of the influence of yeast.)

For a recent homebrewing session, we made a yeast starter using a simple wort of dried malt extract. We couldn’t resist tasting it, even though we suspected that, without hops, it wouldn’t be pleasant. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste terrible, and we were astounded to discover just how many of the flavours and aromas we’d put down to the hops were apparently coming from the yeast. Boring malt extract, no hops and good yeast made something drinkable.

We’ve also found in home brewing that the single biggest factor in giving a beer a specific character is the yeast. British malt and British hops with Czech yeast tastes pretty Czech. German malt and German hops with British yeast tastes British. And so on.

We’re certain disagreeable yeast is behind our antipathy to the entire product range of some breweries who others seem to love.

Now we’re seeing single-hop ranges from big brewers, maybe now it’s time for smaller breweries to move on to something else: ranges which showcase characterful yeasts in the same controlled way, as the only variable in a range of otherwise identical beers.

If you want another example of a big beast of a yeast, check out the one used at Fuller’s: their beers brown/amber beers all taste and smell of orange marmalade, regardless of the hops or malt used, because of their assertive yeast.

UPDATE: oh, and we meant to link to this — New Briggate Beer Blog’s post in praise of malt. UPDATE 2: and here’s Alan on water, the forgotten ingredient. Now, who wants to take on ‘in praise of gypsum’?

46 thoughts on “A Big Shout Out for Yeast”

  1. When I did my 3 way witbier brewing session last year I was amazed at the differences the yeasts threw up (I used Wyeast’s American Wheat, Belgian Witbier and Weihenstephan).

    I might do it again this year, but with a British IPA base, and use Nottingham, Safale US 05 and Safale K-97 for the yeasts.

  2. the yeast series is a great idea. There’s so much more to beer than hops, the ‘glamour’ side of beer.
    I must admit, I got into Yeast (or rather, what it brings to the table flavour-wise) after homebrewing. When I meet a brewer now, I always ask about what yeast they use – obviously most won’t say! I recently tasted 3 Marble beers on 3 nights, and it was really obvious what thier yeast was bringing to the table – a bubblegummy, super-fruity note. It was the common thread that linked and ESB, Dunkel and IPA.

      1. Leigh, I’m obviously out of the loop with things at Marble, but I know the Dunkel was fermented with a White labs strain German Weizen yeast and I’m guessing the Old Manchester and IPA were fermented with the Marble house yeast, which, if I remember correctly, is a version of the Gales strain. God, I miss that yeast, despite its tendency to kick out loads of Diacetyl above 5% abv…

  3. The critical contribution of yeast to flavour has been known for… well, yonks. We use an old yeast from a regional brewery of yesteryear – certainly distinctive, and we plan to compare recipe results against a “standard” “modern” yeast. When? Not telling. Previously I worked at a brewery with an old dual-strain yeast that was characteristically redolent of apples. Classic Boddie’s was brewed with yeast that had developed a ridiculous number of separate strains – 30+? They eventually reduced the number to about 9, but could go no further without detectably altering the character of the beer. So yes – yeast is important. I taste ours regularly as an informal quality control test. Am I weird? Nope – just a brewer.

    1. Ooh, good video, thanks: “Everyone talks about malt and hops and yeast is the forgotten ingredient.”

  4. Really interesting post. There is a certain brewery whose beers all seem to have a certain flavor to them, and I had always assumed all of the beers shared a certain malt or hop. Never even thought it could be the yeast.

    1. Wadworth immediately springs to mind? Fullers have a distinctive taste, but the beers are nowhere near as “samey” as the Wadworth range…

      1. “check out the one used at Fuller’s: their beers brown/amber beers all taste and smell of orange marmalade, regardless of the hops or malt used”

        I’m glad you mentioned this, and Graeme in the comment above – I wholeheatedly agree. I drank a 2004 bottle of the Fullers vintage, with and without the yeast – it was marmalade all the way.

        Also, I never really got on with Wadworth’s portfolio. This might be explained by a particular yeast they use….

  5. Grrr, I was planning to write a post very similar to this but you beat me to it.

    Yeast is very unfashionable at the moment. But it’s crucial to giving British session beers their character. At 3.2% with hardly any hops or malt, where else are you going to get flavour from?

    Sadly an awful lot of new breweries seem to use one of the same four or five off-the-shelf yeast strains. It’s no wonder that so many beers all start to taste similar.

    1. Worth writing yours anyway, though — it’ll probably be longer, better thought out and cite more evidence.

  6. Yeast is vitally important and for most brewers is responsible for their house flavour. If a brewery has their own in house yeast it’s sometimes easier to think of them as a yeast farm that happens to make beer as a by-product.

  7. The fermentation makes or breaks a beer-and it’s the yeast that does it. And it’s not just a case of getting a healthy ferment but it’s choosing the right strain too, not just chucking done in out of a packet.

    (Re: Bavarian Wheat, weizen, etc-bubblegum, esp. when it is more than just a trace, is usually a fault due to a less than optimal ferment – often yeast working at too high at temperature. See Stan’s “Brewing with Wheat”, p189)

  8. Great post. For me characterful yeast is vitaly important to what makes English style ales. Yes yeast is important to all beer obviously, but where the Americans (and on the whole my countrymen) have gone in for neutral yeast characters to create a ‘blank canvas’ to build up new world hop characters, traditional English ales are rounded out and given complexity from fruity fermentation profiles. I hope that doesnt get lost as English micros increasingly take influence from the Americans.

  9. The British Guild of Beer Writers did a yeast seminar about 10 years ago and beers were brewed with a variety of yeasts, ale, lager, bakers and there was also a plan for human yeast but I don’t know what happened there. I always think that the difference between an ale and a lagered beer is the yeast — the lagered beer is the canvas on which the colour of the hops and malt are unleashed after the long maturation, while the shorter matured ale has the yeasty esters, especially after 5% or thereabouts adding their tupenny’s worth. The first time I went into a yeast store, Holdens I think, I was blown away by the pineapple and banana notes.

    1. “there was also a plan for human yeast but I don’t know what happened” Couldn’t find a volunteer willing to have their sweaty groin cultured?

      Just askin’…

  10. I was going to mention Wadworth, probably the most ‘samey’ of any brewery in the west country. If only it was good ‘samey’.

    1. Agreed – to me it’s often almost verging on a low level musty type infection, but I’m sure it is just the house flavour. Occasionally the odd pint is pretty tasty – like Bishops Tipple – but I wonder if the hop character mutes the yeast contribution?

      1. It really is a bizarre house flavour. I had their 2.8% offering (can’t remember the name) about a fortnight ago. It just tasted like a watered down 6X. Arkell’s in Swindon is similar though not as prominent. Between those two breweries they have a majority of the pubs serving ale sewn up round Wilts/Glos.

    1. That’s caused by a filamentous fungus. You wouldn’t want to use Candida or Cryptococcus but I did once ponder trying to make a beer with Malassezia until I came to my senses.

  11. The most interesting lesson from the Mikkeller yeast series was the beer made with Weissbier yeast. A dead ringer for a Bavarian Wheat Beer – but no wheat malt!

    1. Stan and i did an experiment about wheat A few years ago to a bunch of beer geeks. One of the wheat beers had no wheat and only wheat yeast and tannal a. People thoguht this has the most wheat in it. Stan do u remember? Shows a lot about yeast.

  12. Top notch post! Yeast truly is the unsung hero of brewing. There are some brewers out there that make some beers with different yeasts. So to an extent one can get creative with yeast the same as ingredients.

  13. Something definitely worth thinking about, last night during a tasting session with a few friends someone mentioned a “yeasty taste” and yes I too had forgotten what a key role it plays in the flavour of beer.
    It may be that unless the yeast is particularly marked in the flavour then it is lost as the “way that brewery’s beer tastes” some of which contains the flavours from the breweries particular yeast strain.

  14. At last we are realising that “Yeast makes Beer”.
    Now can the tiresome hopheads please shut up about their extreme beers, please.

    Belgian ale, Yorkshire bitter, Czech pivo, Bavarian bier. It’s all in the yeast…

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