Beers with Brewer’s Yeast and the Alternatives
At first, in brewing you might feel like you’re stuck with “brewer’s yeast,” yeast brands that have been commercialized and marketed as the go-to solution for all of your fermenting needs in brewing.
The reality, however, is very different.
You come to see the longer you are in the brewing world that you have a whole range of options to choose from in the yeast world.
Indeed, as of the most recent count, we have around 200 strains of ale yeast alone, another hundred or so of lager yeast, and that’s just among yeast strains recognized as “ideal” for brewing.
There’s a whole other category for wine yeast, baker’s yeast, and more, and yes, you can use any of those strains for brewing.
Let’s talk about what that means for your next batch.
Yeast and Yeast Strains
To begin, it is important to understand the role of yeast and what it is we are dealing with.
Yeast is a living organism – a eukaryotic cell that is hundreds of millions of years old.
By nature, yeast has its own enclosed nucleus and can procreate on its own. The process of asexual reproduction for yeast simply involves the mother cell growing a daughter cell from her own “body,” which extends out from the mother cell until it grows to more than 50% of the mother cell’s volume.
Once the daughter cell is large enough to survive on her own, she breaks off and begins her own life and reproductive cycle.
What is the life cycle of a yeast cell? Find sugar, consume it for energy, and expel water, alcohol, and carbon dioxide as waste products.
When yeast has oxygen, its waste products are water and CO2. When it does not have oxygen, it expels alcohol instead of water. This process is what we know as fermentation.
The life cycles of all yeast strains we know of in the fermentation world are basically the same.
But as of right now, we have recognized at least 1,500 different species of yeast that will undergo fermentation.
What makes them different?
Well, yeast cells vary in their tolerance for alcohol, in the flavors and aromas they produce as byproducts along with the alcohol and carbon dioxide, and in the length of time it takes to ferment as well as the temperatures at which they ferment.
In general, all fermentation is carried out by two main yeast categories – Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces pastorianus. Both have multiple sub-strains that can alter flavor, aroma, and complexity.
For millennia, brewing has been performed by various sub-strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as ale yeast.
Indeed, S. cerevisiae is the most widely used yeast in fermentation, with more than 90% of fermentation products drawing on this popular yeast.
Ale yeast ferments quickly and at a rather warm temperature – between 60 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
It also has a mid-range tolerance for alcohol – between 8% and 12% – though you can find brewer’s yeast that will go a bit lower and some that will go a bit higher.
Then, about around the 1400s, some Bavarian monks discovered a yeast (without realizing yet, of course) that will ferment much colder and takes much longer to complete the full fermentation cycle, delivering a cooler, crisper, brighter brew.
Saccharomyces pastorianus ferments between 48 degrees and 58 degrees Fahrenheit.
And since that time, these two categories, with their many substrains, have made up what we think of as brewer’s yeast.
But it gets more complicated than that, of course.
Both S. cerevisiae and S. pastorianus are also used in winemaking, which produces a beverage with a much higher alcohol tolerance.
Wine yeast, both from the S. cerevisiae and S. pastorianus strains have an alcohol tolerance of 14% to 18% and can go as high as 21%.
What many brewers don’t realize is that just because it is called “wine yeast” does not mean you cannot use it in brewing.
Many craft brewers will experiment with wine yeast or champagne yeast to get more carbonation, more alcohol, and different complexity in flavor.
Also, if you’re hoping to age a beer with a higher ABV a bit more, an S. pastorianus wine yeast might be the way to go.
The only trouble will be in finding a wine yeast that is compatible with the specific beer you are attempting to brew.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, baker’s yeast is a sub-strain of S. cerevisiae that has a very low alcohol tolerance, between 6% and 8%.
Thus, baker’s yeast is often used by brewers who are making session beers, or beer with such a lower ABV that a drinker can enjoy a couple of bottles of brew without feeling drunk.
Again, this sub-strain of yeast will produce different flavors and aromas, so expect more bready, foamy results than you would with traditional brewer’s yeast.
Then, of course, for the very adventurous, there are the wild yeast strains to be found in nature.
Several small breweries across the states and in Europe are experimenting with flavor and aroma complexity that results from harvesting the yeast outside of your back door.
It is a simple matter of wandering out into nature and collecting the yeast that hovers on local plant life, or even attracting those local yeasts by setting out dried fruits in a jar of water and waiting a few days to see what yeasts begin to collect there.
The bottom line is that all commercial yeast companies have done is collect and cultivate the yeasts that we have known to be naturally attracted to either wine, with its high sugar content, beer, with its toasted grainy sugars in water, and bread, with its low amount of sugars trapped in dough, and then called them by the names that correspond to their natural attractions.
In essence, brewer’s yeast is only brewer’s yeast because the yeast was originally attracted to the wort that makes beer. Likewise with wine and bread yeast.
It is, ultimately, up to the brewers to decide which yeast is right for their specific brew.
And to have fun while experimenting.
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