Less is more. Keep it simple. Don’t gild the lily. The better the fish, the lighter the sauce. There seems to be no end of proverbs (clichés?) that advise us to avoid overcomplication, and I’m going to add one to the list: fewer is better, at least when it comes to yeast strains in a brewery.
Flip through any book of recipes or prowl around the archives of beer recipes on beerandbrewing.com, and you’ll find a riot of yeast strains listed. Just one major yeast purveyor in the United States offers (currently) about six dozen different strains of brewing yeasts and bacteria year-round, not counting specialty and one-off and seasonal strains. A brewer—professional or home—could be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed, and I’m writing today to pitch (pun intended) a simpler message: fewer yeasts, better beer.
I don’t mean less yeast—this isn’t about pitching rates. I mean fewer strains of yeast in your recipes. Rather than choosing a singular, must-have strain for each recipe and style, like a wine snob who just can’t drink that 2003 Syrah out of anything except a Bordeaux glass, my argument is that you’d be better served and produce better beer by choosing from a curated selection of go-to yeasts that are capable of fermenting a wide range of recipes within broad style categories. Simplify your lives with just five yeasts. Improve your beer by knowing intimately what those yeasts tolerate, produce, and taste like. Fewer yeasts, better beer.
The Case for Consistency
Brewing is a dynamic process, and predicting the outcome is challenging enough. When we’re evaluating whether a particular input is worth adjusting—in this case, whether it’s worth it to tune each recipe to a specific yeast strain—we should also consider whether we’re adding risk and/or uncertainty along with that input. I propose that when it comes to yeast-strain selection, from the perspective of a homebrewer (and maybe a commercial brewer), there are good reasons to resist the urge to custom-fit your yeast choices to your recipe.
First, brewing has enough variables. Many of the best and most experienced brewers I know are evangelists for simplifying recipes and processes. They write passionately about (and support empirically) the idea that fewer hops additions, simpler grists, and straightforward brewing practices that avoid complication and complexity are virtues to be emulated because they promote consistency and make it easier to make meaningful corrections and adjustments. The simpler the recipe and the simpler the process, the easier it is to “see” and, therefore, evaluate the effects of recipe and process adjustments. I see no reason why yeast selection shouldn’t be included in this broader approach.
Second, learning can be hard. I brew a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Smaller batches, sure, but by frequency, I brew about as much as any homebrewer I know. At a minimum, I can count on two batches per month, and in my busier seasons, I’ll sometimes turn out five to six batches in a single week. Brewing at that fast clip, I find it challenging to evaluate the product and refine and revise recipes. As homebrewers, we aren’t usually producing the same beer over and over again. We’re brewing up a kaleidoscope of styles and variations, maybe with some seasonal favorites or “house beers” that crop up again and again, but novelty is the norm. In that environment, getting a good sense of how and why a yeast performed as it did and contributed what it did (or not) is difficult. That learning process is much more robust if you’re returning to the same strain for similar “families” of beers because identifying similar fermentation characters is easier across multiple batches even if the recipes aren’t precisely the same. If I’m trying to compare the effects of Wyeast London III to the effects of Thames Valley ESB yeast in a bitter recipe I brew only twice a year, I’m in a tough spot, relying on unreliable sense memory and maybe some detailed notes. But if I’m evaluating just one of those yeasts across the three English-style beers I brewed on one day last month, I can, in real time, consider what that one yeast is doing for beers that share some DNA.
Last, there are questions of supply, demand, and timeliness. I walk into the local homebrew shop with a recipe in hand. While the staff are weighing out the grist, I’m prowling the yeast coolers for the exact products I want … but the yeast I’ve selected isn’t available. We’ve all been there, frantically Googling “substitute for Munich Lager yeast.” Or, even worse is when there’s one pack of the yeast we want…but it’s dated four months prior, and we have to do a back-of-the-napkin calculation on yeast viability or leap into the unknown with some other random yeast. And maybe you do find the yeast you want, but then you get home, and your family and life take over, and you don’t get to brew that Oktoberfest with the seasonal yeast until you’re looking down the barrel at Christmas. But because you’re yeast path–dependent, you brew it up anyway. That’s never me. I just use my go-to lager yeast on a Baltic Porter instead of that Oktoberfest and get on with my life.
Yes, I’ll take my consistency any day of the week, which isn’t to say I don’t ever cheat on my committed yeast relationships—but as a general principle, my Big Five yeasts keep me out of trouble and happy. So, what are they?
The Big Five
Disappointment alert: I’m not actually going to tell you which yeasts to select. I’ll mention the ones I keep handy and why but only to illustrate the principle that you should choose strains that fit your general preferences for flavor, attenuation, and more. That caveat out of the way, the meat of my proposal is this: select five “house” strains to ferment the vast majority of your beers by choosing strains in the following beer “families”: generic ale, generic lager, English, Belgian, and weizen.
For a lot of styles, fermentation character isn’t especially unique. The guidelines will give you a lot of “low-to-moderate esters,” “none-to-low phenols,” etc. They’re just sort of generally “ale-like,” by which I mean they have more fermentation character than a lager, but the character of that character isn’t specific or meaningfully tied to a certain flavor profile. These are your amber ales, your altbier and kölsch, nearly all of your porters and stouts, and more. If I plan a beer and I’m not explicitly thinking “I need X flavor” or “I want no fermentation character because it’s a lager,” then I use a generic ale yeast. In my case, Wyeast 1007 (German Ale). Why that one? Because it attenuates well, works quickly at cool temperatures, and even at warm temperatures produces only a modest amount of fruit/berry flavors. It’s a catch-all. I have a starter of this spinning in the brewery right now—and I have no idea what I’m going to brew with it because I don’t need to know. It’ll work on lots of things!
Just as I have a generic ale yeast, I have a go-to generic lager yeast. Sure, there are differences among lager strains, but they’re pretty subtle, and in most lagers you’re good so long as you get a clean fermentation. That plus good attenuation at cold temperatures is why Wyeast 2206 (Bavarian Lager) gets the job done for me. “But what if you’re making a Czech pilsner?” What if I am? You might be able to tell that two lagers were fermented with different lager strains if I handed them to you side-by-side (though even that’s not a slam dunk), but the idea that someone would drink my Moravian pils and say, “Hey, was this fermented with Bavarian Lager yeast, not Bohemian Lager yeast?” is a real stretch.
This one isn’t always on hand for me (I’ve had plenty of success making English styles with my generic ale yeast), but I get noticeably better results in my English beers when I use an English strain (London III, if anyone’s curious). Why? Because English beers are somewhat identifiable by their fermentation character. Strawberry and a touch of diacetyl are relatively noticeable and notable when they’re absent.
This is the one that will have some of you screaming at me. Belgian beers, after all, are highly identifiable by fermentation character. As Tomme Arthur, cofounder and director of brewery operations at Lost Abbey told me, “We use three to four different Belgian strains” even on their core Belgian beers. However, if you’re not a world-renowned Belgian-style brewery, you don’t need to go that route. I find that my Wyeast 3522 (Belgian Ardennes) produces a flavorful and reliable “Belgian” (pears, oranges, a little pepper) character while never going overboard, and that’s a guardrail I like to have.
There are few beers as easily identifiable by their fermentation character as weizens. If you’re not rocking a nice, full isoamyl acetate (banana) note and some clove, people are going to notice. But are people really going to notice the difference between Wyeast 3068 (Weihenstephan) and Wyeast 3056 (Bavarian Wheat) strains? Doubtful, even though one might be a slightly better fit for hefe and another for dunkelweizen. Try them all out and pick the one that gives you the balance you like!
When to Cheat.
So that’s it. From 100ish strains to five. Don’t you feel the weight coming off of your shoulders already?
That being said, I will sometimes deviate.
There are three conditions that might lead me to “cheat” on these go-to strains for a particular recipe: style, circumstance, and convenience. I’ll sometimes pick a specific yeast for a specific style, but it boils down to just three for me, after a decade of tinkering. Saison calls for more peppery notes than I get from my go-to Belgian yeast, and my malt expression is just better in Irish ale and Scottish ale (just the standard 60–80/- varieties) with an Irish ale yeast strain. Likewise, circumstance might push me (or you) off of the “usual” yeasts—brewing a beer during a colder/hotter season, equipment failure (such as a full or broken fermentation fridge), or if I’m actively experimenting, for example. And sometimes it’s simply a question of convenience: I’m in the shop, and I can’t get my usual yeast, or I see a sale on some yeast I don’t normally use because it’s three months old, and so I take a flyer.
The Company You Keep
This is an approach that I see in some great pro breweries. Not all of them, of course. A brewer I respect for his incredible care and creativity, John Stemler of Free Will, says this: “We use a ton of different strains as they are an important part of the palette from which we paint. Using a particular house strain limits creation.” John’s right—but it’s also true that John has six equipment profiles for propagating yeast (which I don’t), and as he also told me, “all this being said, we do have a house saison yeast we use often.” Likewise, a dedicated Belgian-specializing brewery might use the whole range of yeast strains: Zach Bodah, quality manager at Allagash, says, “We look at each beer as a blank slate, so the yeasts we use vary dramatically even within the same style of beer.” That’s totally fair, but it’s not universal.
The aforementioned Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey says that even though they use a range of Belgian strains, for non-Belgian beers they have “one or two ale strains, and generally just one lager strain.” Jamil Zainesheff of Heretic Brewing notes “we have three strains that we use constantly: a clean ale, a hazy ale, and a lager” (and that, in a given year, they’ll use only about 12 different strains across all of their beers). Dan Strevey, director of quality at Avery, might have been dictating over my shoulder when I wrote this. He notes that they use “six strains: house ale, wit, lager, Westmalle, English, and a Drei Fonteinen/lacto blend.” While many breweries are doing this as a function of cost or constant demand for a single recipe, at least half of the dozen-ish pros I spoke with indicated that they tend to brew several recipes off of a single yeast profile.
As homebrewers, we benefit from the same kinds of cost savings that the pros realize from focusing on a stable of “regular” yeast. We also see benefits that aren’t an issue for them, in that it lets us learn a yeast in a way we never could without brewing the same recipe weekly, year after year. The sacrifice of a small level of “customization” of the recipe is one that is unlikely to be noticeable, and the advantage of it is one I’m glad to defend.
Fewer yeasts—better beer.
Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com