One of the four basic ingredients in making beer is yeast. In this previous post we covered the basics of yeast and what it means for brewing beer. Most home brew kits that use extract will come with dry yeast, but as you learned, liquid yeast gives you more control over the beer you’re making. To use liquid yeast, it’s always recommend that you use a Starter to help the vial or packet of yeast propagate enough to insure you have a good fermentation. Basically a yeast starter is simply a little home for your yeast to multiply and grow before the hard task of fermenting your beer comes along. Ideally you want to make your yeast starter about 24 hours before you want to brew with it.
- 2 quart or larger sauce pan with lid
- 1 Cup Dry Malt Extract (DME)
- 1 vial or packet of yeast
- Half-Gallon growler
- Erlenmeyer flask (if using instead of growler)
- 6″ x 6″ sheet of aluminum foil
- Sanitized spoon
- Sanitized funnel
How Its Done
Here are the seven basic steps to making a viable yeast starter. Make sure to follow as closely as possible so your starter is ready when you want to brew.
The first step in doing a yeast starter is to acquire the base yeast. I tend to lean towards White Labs yeast vials for this. Wyeast Smack Packs are good, too. Make sure when you buy your yeast you pay attention to the date on it, and where it came from. This can affect how many viable yeast there are in the vial. Along with this, make sure it’s been kept cold it’s entire life. If you ordered it in the mail, make sure it’s still cold when it arrives. All these can affect the number of viable yeast in the tube or pack.
2. Storing and Preparing
The next step is storing and preparing the yeast. Make sure to store the yeast in the fridge and DO NOT let it freeze. Remove the vial or packet from the fridge about 4-8 hours before you want to use it. This will warm it up and get it ready for the starter.
3. Get Your Boil On
Next, you will get some Plain Amber Dry Malt Extract (DME) to use for the “food” for the yeast. There are a few ways to do the next steps, but I have found mine are the easiest. Feel free to adjust as needed. Get a 2 quart or larger sauce pan and make sure it’s extremely clean and sanitize it. Place 4 cups of water and 1 cup of DME into the pan, stir, and start to boil. Make sure you stir the mixture until the DME is absorbed 100%. After the mixture begins to boil, set a timer for 10 minutes and reduce heat to a slow, rolling boil.
4. Prepare The Vessel
While this is boiling, your next step is to prepare a container for the starter. I use a 1/2 gallon growler, preferably the dark brown kind. You can also use an Erlenmeyer flask for this as well. The Erlenmeyer Flask is great because you can place it on the stove and do your boil in the thing you are using for the starter. It’s more sanitary and required less clean up. Clean and sanitize the container you will be using in preparation for the next step.
(Note: DO NOT place anything but an Erlenmeyer flask on a heated surface. It uses treated glass that can stand heat. Standard glass CAN NOT.)
5. Cool It Down
While the boil is still going on, prepare an ice bath in your sink to cool the wort. This can be done with a smaller amount of ice and water than a full batch of beer since you’re just cooling your sauce pan. When the boil is complete, place the sauce pan into the ice bath, making sure it won’t spill, place a thermometer in the mixture and place the lid on. Leave it until the wort reaches 70* F. Once it reaches the proper temperature, it’s on the the next step.
6. Pitch The Yeast
Place the funnel into the growler and pour the wort into the growler. Take your yeast vial and shake it up. artfully open the vial (it might spray a little) and pour ALL the contents into the growler as well. Make sure the piece of aluminum foil is sanitized and crush it over the mouth of the growler. Place your hand firmly over the foil and shake the growler a few times to make sure the yeast is mixed into the wort well and to aerate it. pull the foil back a little so it isn’t completely tight. We want a little O2 getting in.
7. Let It Work
When this is all done, place the yeast starter somewhere it will be around 65-70 degrees constantly and make sure it is in something that can overflow into without making a mess. A hearty yeast starter will most likely overflow. Over the next 24 hours, agitate it a little bit every few hours. I recommend swishing the growler around, as I found just mocking it and taunting it doesn’t help.
You will know if the yeast are working by a foamy head that forms in the growler. If this is forming, you have viable yeast and it’s working! If it looks like nothing is happening, that means you’re yeast were probably dead and your starter is kaput. Get a new vial and start again.
Note: if you have a Wyeast Smack Pack, follow the directions on the pack to get it going, then add the contents of it to the starter in step 6.
As you can see, a yeast starter is not as difficult as it sounds, but it is definitely important. I always recommend making a yeast starter. White Labs and Wyeast claim their yeast packs are ready to pitch into 5 gallon batches of beer on the packages, and while they aren’t lying, some extra yeast can’t hurt. I recommend 2 vials of White Labs yeast for a 5 gallon batch if you don’t do a starter, so you can save a few bucks and only buy 1, and make it into more than 2 vials worth of yeast in 24 hours.
Another great point of using a starter is that you can test the viability of the yeast before pitching into your brew. If the yeast don’t work in a starter, they won’t work in the beer you’re brewing either. Better to find out in a starter than in a ruined batch of beer!
I hope you learned something here, and that you can use it to make better beer. Until next time,