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.


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