Chapter Two: The Yeast Begins It

In chapter one I pointed out that an allure of home brewing is the do-it-yourself culture it engenders. I am in no way “handy” or talented or mechanically inclined, etc., but I am fascinated by the notion of scraping together whatever odds and ends you may have at home and augmenting that with particulars from the hardware store or home brew supply store and forging a piece of equipment through which you can make art.

The Recipe
The same motif transfers to crafting recipes for beers. Each style of beer has its own basic grist bill, a recipe of ingredients, with varying percentages of base malts and crystal malts and roasted malts and wheat malt and amounts of hops and adjuncts – you get the idea.

There are a multitude of published recipes, from personal home brew favorites to clones of popular commercially available beers to award winning competition entries. A brewer is free to choose from these or strike out on his own and make up a totally new recipe. It can be based on the framework of a particular style or it can be a wholly new and Frankensteinian conglomeration.

Or, if you’ve been out of the loop for a time you can look back into your old recipe logs and brew an old favorite. In my case, I looked into that old recipe spreadsheet and found a beer for which I had created a recipe whence thinking about what beers I’d want in my line up for the brewery that I never opened. I had never actually made the beer. It is, I think, a smoked Porter or stout. Honestly I am not positive – but the recipe seemed porterish or stoutish and it contained smoked malt. I shall publish the recipe later and others can chime in on it. Additionally, I found a recipe for a strong scotch ale published in Zymurgy, the journal of the American Homebrewers Association. The beer sounded good and had won a competition.

So I wrote out a side by side comparison. Of the ingredients and tweaked both recipes just a little so that ordering would be easier. I crossed over a few malts here, added one from this beer to that, did the same with the hops. Voila, those beers are mine. Again. For the second time. In one case. Well, anyway, you see the do-it-yourself culture happening even in recipe formulation.

While it is important to get the grist bill correct for whatever style you are seeking to make another, arguably more important, choice is the yeast. Which strain is best for your style? Which one will provide the character you are seeking? And will you have enough of it?

The Yeast
Auspiciously both of the recipes above called for the same yeast strain, White Labs Edinburgh Ale, WLP028. “Scotland is famous for its malty, strong ales,” says the White Labs website. “This yeast can reproduce complex, flavorful Scottish style ales. This yeast can be an everyday strain, similar to WLP001. Hop character is not muted with this strain, as it is with WLP002.” Several porters and stouts are amongst those listed for which this strain is appropriate.

Thus I purchased one vial. Yes, one vial, although I intend to make two beers. Now we come to an important function in home brewing, the propagation of yeast. I was terribly concerned about this part. I’ve not made a starter in years. I was sure I’d get it messed up somehow. But, I took precautions. I cleaned and sanitized the boiling pot. I cleaned and sanitized the flasks. I got out lots of aluminum foil.

The White Labs vials and Wyeast smack packs are designed to be pitched into five gallons of beer. However, sometimes you may be making a rather strong beer that needs more oomph than the vial may have. Or, you just want fermentation to get started right away. In those cases, you can make a yeast starter. Essentially, you do a very small micro-nano-pico brew with some dried malt extract. You Tube has some good videos on yeast starters. The process is the same on all of them, so far. All of this is to be done a day or so before Brew Day.

First, collect your water. If you’re using an Erlenmyer flask use it to measure the water you’ll need. I have two such flasks, one is 500 mL capacity and the other is 1000 mL. So I filled them to those levels and put the water in a pot on the stove.

The White Labs tutorial recommended a ratio of 10:1 for the yeast wort. Thus, since I collected 1500 mL of water I should use 150 grams of extract. Of course, I calculated incorrectly. For some reason I thought the larger flask was 1500 mL; so I thought I had collected 2000 mL of water. Therefore I used 200 grams of DME. I think the yeast starter wort was a bit strong. Oh, and the pot wasn’t big enough. Yeah. Boil over. Cool.

This turned out fine, though. I split the wort into the two flasks after a fifteen minute boil. Yes, I used a properly sanitized funnel to fill the flasks with the hot wort. One cooled in the little beer fridge in the garage and The other cooled in an ice bath in the kitchen sink. It did not take long. Before I knew it the vial was open, it was split between the flasks, they were covered with the aluminum foil, shaken and put out of the way in a cabinet.

As I feared, I did make a couple of mistakes. The first was mentioned above with the water. The second was that I split the vial improperly. I poured a bigger portion of the yeast in the small flask and a smaller bit in the larger flask. I was disconcerted by this. The small flask seemed to be murky and active almost immediately and the large one just stared blankly at me. ’What, you want me to work?’ it seemed to say. ’Didst thou see the piddling amount of yeast ye dumped in me?’

Jerk flask.

However, the yeast in both flasks started working within three hours and now instead of one vial of yeast to pitch I have 1500 mL! There will be sugar conversion! There will be fermentation! I am ready for Brew Day. Now I must decide which vial to use in which batch.

So ends this chapter. Ingredients ordered, yeast starters made, excitement cultivated.

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