Monthly Archives: June 2011

On Yeast Starters

As you already know, loyal reader, I made the switch to all-grain brewing recently and have had to upgrade my brewing practice and system accordingly (read: I got new toys). Some of the upgrades have made the brewing process easier, some have made it more time-consuming but not necessarily harder. In theory, all the upgrades have made the beer more consistently good-tasting, predictable, and fool-proof. I’ve written about some of these upgrades already (e.g., the mash tun, converted keg pot), but there is one upgrade that isn’t related to equipment at all that I’ve yet to say anything about: the yeast starter.

just a wee little beer

*Disclaimer* This post is about yeast starters (as if the previous paragraph and title don’t make that obvious, as if), and so much-to-most of what follows may not be extremely interesting to the general reader who isn’t brewing beer or familiar with the process. But it will make sense. So even if you don’t need to make a yeast starter, you should be able to read this and wrap your mind around the existence and benefits of this thing called the yeast starter. That is, if you are actually interested in reading the rest. And if you’re still reading this far, let’s just say you are. Interested that is.

Ok. I’ve made yeast starters for the last two beers I made. Only the last two. This means a couple of things:

1. I haven’t yet actually tasted a beer I’ve made with a starter.

2. I ain’t exactly Einstein on the subject.

Also, yeast starters are only applicable to liquid yeast. If you’re using dry yeast, you should rehydrate it (which will be another post altogether).

I learned about starters by reading posts on the Northern Brewer and Home Brew Talk forums and by watching youtube videos. I’d like to say I read up on the subject in The Joy Of Homebrewing, but I didn’t. In any case, youtube is a great place to see how other people make starters and see what fits your capabilities best. In particular, I like Don OsbornJoe Polvino, and BrewAcademy (didn’t catch the guy’s name, but his explanations are accessible and fun to watch).

With that in mind, I’ll get on to what I’ve got to say about yeast starters. What I have to say is basically that starters are easy–but do require a tiny bit of planning–and can ease the doubt and fear that sometimes follows brewing (at least when I do it) by ensuring fast proof of fermentation.

Here’s how I make my starter. First I get a 1 gallon wine jug clean and sanitized. My wife occasionally makes wine, so we’ve got some empty wine jugs around. While the jug is getting sanitized, I bring half a gallon of water to a boil. Actually, let’s just do this as a list.

0. I take the liquid yeast out of the refrigerator and smack the pack if it’s Wyeast.

1. Clean and sanitize a 1 gallon glass jug (or milk container, or pretty much anything that holds a gallon and can be fitted with an airlock or tinfoil lid).

2. Boil half a gallon of water.

3. Add half a cup of dry malt extract to water. (Light extract would be best, but for reasons not completely germane here I’ve been using dark.)

4. Boil for 15 minutes. Call it wort. This is basically a tiny little half-gallon beer.

5. Cool down the wort as quickly as possible. I use an ice bath in the sink.

6. Go back to before step 1 and make sure I’ve taken the liquid yeast out of the refrigerator.

7. When the wort’s below 80 F, pour it into the sanitized jug and shake the damn shit out of it (yeast needs O2 to do its thing).

8. Pour in the yeast and cap it with sanitized tin foil.

Shazaam. Yeast starter.

Now, the other extremely important point is that this entire process needs to happen at least a day before you make beer. Here’s why:

A yeast starter is a way to cultivate a proper amount a yeast to pitch into a given batch of beer. The amount of yeast in a Wyeast smack pack or White Labs vial is adequate for pitching straight into cooled wort, but it isn’t ideal (when pitching a vial or smack pack, the yeast has to grow itself first, which can stress out the yeast, which can cause off-flavors in the beer, which just isn’t good for anybody, which etc.). Making a starter ensures that the amount of yeast pitched into the beer is sufficient to start fermenting wort quickly without unnecessarily straining the yeast. So giving the yeast you plan to pitch into your wort a little warm up wort to get started helps it do a better job when it gets to the 5 gallon (or whatever size you brew) batch. It’s like a practice before the actual game. It’s important to give the yeast at least a day to work in the starter before pitching it into a full size batch of beer. And if you can plan it so the starter is made a few days before the beer, you can chill the starter down the night before you pitch it. Chilling down the starter settles the yeast at the bottom of the jug so that when it’s ready to pitch, the wort can be mostly poured off (decanted) and just the yeast can be pitched into the 5 gallons of wort. (That way you’re not adding the malt extract beer from the starter to the real beer you made.)

The other big benefit of a starter is that fermentation starts extremely quickly. The two starters I’ve used have gotten serious fermentation going in less than 12 hours. I’m talking about 1 inch krausens (thick foam at the top of the wort) and all kinds of little yeast particles floating around. No more worrying that the yeast isn’t working.

Like I said, I haven’t actually verified the results of using a starter by tasting the beer, but going on what I’ve read about yeast strain and starters and what I’ve seen in the fermentation of my last two beers, I see no reason at all for anyone making beer, all-grain, partial grain, or extract, to not use a yeast starter.

Birmingham Magic City Beer Festival

A few Saturdays ago, my wife and I went to the Magic City Brewfest in Birmingham, AL. We’d been to the festival for the first time two years ago and had an awesome time. Last year we missed it, so it was nice to make it this year. While the festival has grown, it’s still a manageable event. There were certainly way too many beers to even think about trying them all, which was good, but there weren’t so many people that it was a pain to have to wait in long lines. It did seem like there were more breweries this year than two years back, and that’s always good, too.

I didn’t have a list of the beers to use as a checklist for the beers I tried because the little programs ran out pretty early on. When we went to pick one up, one of the festival volunteers told us they hadn’t gotten enough copies of the program, which is, I guess, understandable. But then he added “We’re a non-profit, so we mess stuff up all the time.” Quote of the day. All this to say that I didn’t actually keep track of the beers I had as I had them. But, I did look up the beer list when we got home and was able to put together a reasonably accurate list of what I tried. I’m sure there were some beers that didn’t appear on the list that I tried but don’t remember, but maybe not too many.

It’s not annotated, but here’s what I had:

Anderson Valley Hop Ottin IPA

Avondale Battlefield IPA

Ayinger Celebrator–got a souvenir plastic goat that they hang around the neck of the bottles

Bell’s Oberon

Big Al Brewing Irish Red Ale

Blue Pants Corduroy Rye IPA

Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse

Choc Beer Last Laugh White Ale

Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale

Good People Dark Farmhouse–one of the best I had–I’ve been on a saison kick lately

Good People El Gordo

Great Divide Colette Saison

Lazy Magnolia Reb Ale

Left Hand 400 Pound Monkey

North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner

Ommegang Witte

Rogue Brutal Bitter–one of my all-time favorites, beer fest or no

Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere

Sprecher Pipers Scotch-style Ale

Straight to Ale Monkeynaut IPA

Straight to Ale Stop Work 689 Kolsch–another one of my favorites for the day

Yazoo Hefeweizen

I know it looks like a lot of beers, but if you haven’t been to a beer festival before, be aware that the beers are poured as 2 oz. samples. So you get to try lots more beer than you’d be able to if you got a whole beer each time.

The festival was definitely a good time. The beers were good, and even though it was hotter than eight hells, it was a pretty nice day. I’ll take an afternoon outside drinking good beers any old damn day. One other nice touch to the festival was that there was a complete lack of Big Three beers. I wanted to say a ‘noticeable lack,’ but I’m not sure I really actually noticed they weren’t there at the time. Read into it whatever you want. To me it reads: Awesome.

One other thing that seemed worth noting was that I saw a guy with a tattoo on one of his legs from the knee to his ankle. Not just any tattoo. A tattoo of an argyle sock. That’s a statement. Of something.

Also, Raise Your Pints (the MS group pushing for higher alcohol limits in MS) was at the festival, and we met a fellow homebrewer, Wick (take a look at his own homebrew site here), that lives here in town. Wick stopped by when we brewed the Big Swell IPA and dropped off a few of his own beers, two of which were 1st place winners in a homebrew competition. These beers were good. Right now, I’m drinking his Chocolate Hazelnut Stout, which has a strong hazelnut taste that fades into a dark chocolate flavor at the end. Pretty damn good. The others (a brown ale and a Scottish 70 Shilling) were equally good.

chocolate hazelnut stout–it’s hard to see, but it’s dark. way dark.

Counting down days to the next beer festival whenever and whereever that will be.

Brewed Slowly Catch-Up: #15 Dry Stout and #16 Maui Brewing Co. Big Swell Clone

Recently, I’ve made some beers I haven’t told you guys about, and since I’m sitting here with no power (there’s a thunderstorm going through), I figured I’d write about some beer while I drink a beer in the near dark—the laptop’s got about 4 hours left of battery. Earlier, around the middle of May, I made a dry Irish stout, and just last week, I made a clone of Maui Brewing Co.’s Big Swell IPA.

I made the stout because I had some dark specialty grains and various hops sitting around that I wanted to finally get rid of and a couple packs of dry yeast that needed to be used. So I ordered some grain and made it on the cheap. It’d been such a long time since I’d made a stout that I figured it was time to try it out again. The Big Swell IPA was a kind of request of a friend who’d just come back from Hawaii and had the beer there. We went in together to split the cost and then we’ll split the beer when it’s bottled.

I’m going to rework my standard recipe explanation and basically give you the ingredients and basic steps I used to make the beer—basically less talk and more specifics.

So, first the stout.


9 lbs Maris Otter 2 row pale malt

2 lbs flaked barley

4 oz roasted barley

18 oz chocolate malt

19 g Warrior hop pellets

1 tsp Irish Moss

(2) 11.5 g packs of Safbrew S-33 dry yeast


1. One-step mash of the grains at 152 F for 1 hour in 3.5 gallons of water.

2. Added the specialty grains during batch sparge.

3. Batch sparged with 4.5 gallons of water at 175 F. Vorlaufed and added to brewpot.

4. Added Warrior hops at boil.

5. Boiled for an hour.

6. Added Irish Moss with 15 minutes left in boil.

7. Cooled down the wort and pitched the yeast.

I rehydrated the dry yeast and before pitching, and I only actually say bubbling the very next day. After that, it seemed like nothing was happening. But I let it sit in the primary fermentor for 2 weeks. When I went to keg it, I took a reading, which was 1.020, and figured that I might have pitched the yeast with the wort a little too warm. In any case, the beer tasted alright and fermented most of the way down. So I kegged it up and will carbonate it this week. (I got lazy and have just let it ‘age’ in the keg for the last week or so.

Now, the Big Swell IPA.

big swell IPA after a couple of days


14.5 lbs Rahr 2 row pale malt

14 oz Munich malt

7 oz 40 L Caramel/crystal malt

16 oz 10 L Caramel/crystal malt

1 oz Columbus hop pellets

0.75 oz Centennial hop pellets

1 oz Chinook hop pellets

1 oz Citra hop pellets

1 oz Nugget hop pellets

1 tsp Irish Moss

Wyeast American Ale II starter


1. One-step mash of the grains at 150 F for 1 hour in 4.68 gallons of water.

2. Added the specialty grains during batch sparge.

3. Batch sparged with 2.5 gallons of water at 175 F. Vorlaufed and added to brewpot.

4. Added Columbus and Centennial hops at boil.

5. Boiled for an hour.

6. Added Irish Moss with 15 minutes left in boil.

7. Cooled down the wort overnight and pitched the yeast starter the next day.

This was actually my first time making a yeast starter. I basically boiled half a gallon of water with half a cup of dark dry malt extract (DME) for 15 minutes, cooled it down, then pitched a somewhat expanded smack pack of yeast into it. I let this set for just over 2 days before I pitched it into the wort. I was a little concerned about decanting off the weak wort, especially since it was made with dark DME, but ended up pitching it all in. The color still looks fine. And there’s not way I’m going to not make a starter again—the wort was bubbling heavily after about only 10 hours. It’s been fermenting for about 5 days, and it’s still pretty active.

Drinking It All: #42 Berliner Style Weisse, Brettanomyces Lambicus Special Edition

Drinking It All is a document of my attempt to try every beer in circulation. It’s a Herculean and tragic attempt at best. But it’s the means, not the end that counts here.

champagne pretending to be beer

I’ve finally gotten around to trying the Brettanomyces Lambicus I picked up in Atlanta about three months ago. I’d read about these brettanomyces (which is the type of yeast used in the beer), or brett for short, beers somewhere, I don’t remember where, and how the wild yeast that ferments these beers is such a monster that most breweries won’t let it anywhere near their regular fermentation tanks for fear of contamination. Basically, this type of yeast produces a sour flavor and smell in beers and can easily contaminate and ruin other tamer strands of yeast and beers. I usually like sour stuff alright, so I’ve been wanting to try these sour beers for a while, especially since they are made with what amounts to wild yeast.

It’s a 3% ABV beer, which means I can’t keep it around too long before it goes bad, so I’ve opened it today, hoping that it’s not already past it’s prime.

The beer is a little sour, just like I understood these beers to be, but also fruity tasting. It tastes a little like champagne. And the super light color of the beer kind of reinforces this taste characteristic in a visual way (i.e., it looks like champagne). I’m trying to think of a situation this beer would fit well, and, not to harp on the champagne thing, all that comes to mind is pouring it into champagne flutes and making toasts–it’s a super light (in color and taste) beer that, I think, could fool lots of macrobrewery drinkers into drinking a somewhat fancy Belgian style lambic.

One more thing about this beer–it is heavily carbonated. So much so that when I opened it, it kind of popped. The head could be called foam just as easily as head. So even more champagne characteristics. The carbonation does seem to take away from my ability to taste it–so I’m swirling the beer to try to get rid of some of the bubbles.

That’s a little better, but it’s still pretty tart tasting. And, one more time, champagne-y.

Thumbs up or thumbs down? This particular brett beer–I’ll pass on next time. But I will definitely look for other brett beers.