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’?

Generalisations about beer culture

Sir, step away from the pint!

Hopus beer from Belgium, served with a shot glass of yeast residue.

Neil at Eating isn’t Cheating has been pondering cloudy beer and generating a bit of a brouhaha in the process. We’re quite interested in this discussion because, recently, we’ve seen just evidence of how terrified people are of cloudy beer.

We were in one of our favourite local pubs a few weeks ago when a new cask of something exciting came on. The landlord couldn’t coax a clear pint from it. We were so keen to taste it, however, that we begged him to serve us a half even if it was cloudy.

“It will make you sick. No, I’m not serving you that,” he said.

“It’s only yeast,” we said. “Honestly, we don’t mind.”

“As long as you’ve got plenty of bog roll at home,” he replied. He let us have it but clearly thought we were insane.

All the chaps round the bar agreed. “I wouldn’t drink that. Cloudy beer gives you a gippy gut.” They watched us drink it with appalled looks on their faces. We felt like we were on Jackass.

Of course, the beer tasted fine (if yeasty…) and, no, it didn’t make us ill. Nor did a shot of yeast sediment from a bottle of Hopus in Bruges for that matter.

So, yes, we think those few brewers who decide that they prefer the flavour of a beer without finings will find it’s an uphill struggle to sell it to most British punters. It’s not just a matter of taste: it’s a taboo.

Postcript: we tried the cloudy beer clear, as the brewer intended, a few days later and it was even better.


Jurassic Park

Raul Cano has successfully cultivated yeast from the contents of the belly of an insect trapped in amber 45 million years ago. That’s mindblowing enough.

When you hear that he’s entered into business with a brewer to produce Fossil Fuel Ale using this ancient, super-sturdy yeast, it just gets cooler.

Apparently, it acts like ale yeast at first, fermenting furiously at the top, before sinking to the bottom to carry on working.

Read the whole story at Wired.

And Alan spotted this last year, of course, well before Wired got onto the story…


Have we brewed a lambic?

Our extensive lambic beer maturing cellar. Or, rather, the one at Cantillon in Brussells.
Our extensive lambic beer maturing cellar. Or, rather, the one at Cantillon in Brussells.

Further disaster on the homebrewing front. Our first ale of the autumn, brewed the weeks ago, is infected in some way.

This is a weird one though, as it tastes and smells really different to the last infected batch. It smells like a malty lambic, or maybe like scrumpy cider. It tastes quite interesting – as well as the sour notes, which dominate the initial taste, there’s a bit of butterscotch, blackcurrant and apple. The malt flavour is still there and in the finish, it’s definitely more beer than vinegar. And there are hints of a slightly medicinal, phenolic flavour that could indicate the presence of Brettonomyces, as far as we can tell from a bit of reading around the subject.

In a weird way, it’s actually rather nice. It’s obviously not what we intended to brew, but I’m quite tempted to bottle it, leave it for a few months and see what we end up with.

Perhaps we have a unique wild yeast strain in the marshes around East London which will one day bring beer geeks on pilgrimage from around the world, and make our fortune… or am I being hopelessly optimistic, and we should just use it to make chutney in lieu of cider vinegar?


We actually used two yeasts for this, neither of which seemed to be working at the time, which might explain how something else snuck in. We wanted to use Fullers’ yeast, so we tried to harvest some from a couple of bottles of 1845. As a back up, we also got liquid Wyeast 1028 going. Neither of these showed any signs of life on brew day, so we pitched them both and hoped for the best. Of course, doing all of this would have greatly increased the chance of infection.


Contaminated homebrew – it had to happen some time

Home brewing paraphernalia (or is it a space station?)
Home brewing paraphernalia (or is it a space station?)

We’ve often wondered with some of our less-than-perfect brews whether the off-flavours are due to contamination.

Now we know for sure that there can be no doubt when your beer is contaminated — it smells like sh*t and tastes… well, you need to spit it out pretty quickly or you’ll be sick.

In a couple of years of brewing, this is the first time we’ve had contamination.

In this case we think the probable cause was clumsiness while adding some pre-harvested stuff from a previous batch. The yeast itself smelled fine, but during the pitching, the outside of the jar came into contact with the beer. And we hadn’t sterilised that, and it had been sitting next to all sorts of interesting raw stuff in the fridge.


If nothing else, it serves as a useful reminder not to get complacent, especially when messing around with liquid yeast.

Apologies for all the talk of faeces and vomit. We’ll get back to more savoury topics from tomorrow.