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’?