View Full Version : Making Yeast

04-27-2004, 18:53
In a 1936 magazine article about Kentucky’s top distillers, their full job description was usually given as "distiller and yeast maker." Over this past weekend I asked David Beam, who was a distiller at Jim Beam Clermont for many years, if it is difficult to make yeast from scratch. He said it is very difficult. They never had to do it at Jim Beam because they never lost their yeast. The yeast they are using is descended (yeast being a living thing) from the yeast Jim Beam himself made right after Prohibition. David told me about a couple of distillers he knew who had done it just to prove to themselves that they could and others who tried and never were successful. This is "practical distilling," as opposed to scientific distilling, where you mix up a medium and try to capture a suitable yeast out of the air. This is one of those old fashioned, traditional things. The same end can be accomplished by going to the yeast store and buying a suitable yeast cooked up by scientists in a lab, but then you have a yeast anyone else can buy too. If you make your own that's a proprietary yeast and only you have it. Do Jim Beam and Heaven Hill use the same yeast. Let's just say yes without going into it more than that.

The point of this tale is that yeast making, at least the traditional method, is another dying art. There probably are only a handful of people, all men in their golden years, who know how to do it. Even that may be a stretch, it may be that really there is no one who can do it. Another lost art.

04-27-2004, 20:18
Wouldn't yeast making always have been an easy thing to do? Simply grab an airtight jar or suitable container, and pinch some yeast from a competitor's facility. It doesn't even have to be from the heavily guarded yeast storage. It could be from a fermenter... simply done... Nowadays you could even grab some while the tour guide wasn't watching. Take it and breed it... (Of course, I'm not condoning this, just speculating) http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/confused.gif

04-28-2004, 05:08
I think what chuck is refering to is starting a new culture from scratch by capturing a yeast strain out of the air and propagating it. I belive the hard part would come in trying to get only 1 strain of yeast, while preventing other "wild yeasts" from "contaminating" your culture.

04-28-2004, 09:20
Interesting post, Chuck.

I wonder exactly what David Beam meant by "very difficult"... perhaps he
means that it's difficult to do well.

"Capturing wild yeast" is by no means a dying or lost art. I guess you
just haven't met the right people yet: sourdough bread enthusiasts
do it all the time! Of course, the more knowledgeable among them will
tell you that the traditional method (a mix of flour and water, perhaps
sugar or honey depending on who taught you) doesn't actually catch yeast
"out of the air"... there are already millions of yeast cells already in
the flour before you even mixed it up!

Nevertheless, a particularly hardy/effective/predictable/etc. strain of
yeast is worth its weight in gold, and stumbling upon one through trial
and error is much more difficult than keeping a good strain going.

As to the title "distiller and yeast maker": providing a steady and
predictable yeast supply is by no means easy... there's lots of
"black magic" involved. It turns out that even if you have a pure
strain, it will behave different depending on propigation conditions.
There's a lot to be said in favor of the predictability and reliability
of "bought" yeast!

I must confess, though, that I do like the romantic notion of being able
to start a distillery from absolute scratch in the middle of nowhere,
and the idea that this know-how informs and enritches the modern process.

Tim Dellinger

04-28-2004, 10:16
Culture techniques have significantly changed since the 30's and isolating and culturing yeast are not so much art as before. Working with wild yeast still involves chance. Once you get the yeast, the hard part is figuring out how it impacts your product, especially if you have to wait a couple years to find out. The romantic history at Makers is that Bill Sr made bread to find the find the right yeast, with the assumption that off flavors in bread would result in off-flavors in booze. (I think we've heard that he actually got it from Pappy VW) True Lambic beers are made from wild yeasts, resulting in that tart flavor. In Belgium, certain areas are known for having the "right" wild yeast. So a balance of art and science.
I think that would be Kewl on a business card.
Ed Phalen
Lab Manager, Yeast Maker

04-28-2004, 17:50
The romantic history at Makers is that Bill Sr made bread to find the find the right yeast, with the assumption that off flavors in bread would result in off-flavors in booze. (I think we've heard that he actually got it from Pappy VW)

At the risk of branching into subject matter covered elsewhere here, the Bill Samuels Jr. autobiography tells the "bread story" regarding MM. In his version, however, the baking of various breads resulted in the decision to use wheat instead of rye. Your post piqued my interest regarding the following:

1) Did someone (eg, marketing folks at MM?) at some point propose that the bread experiment was "yeast driven" in addition to "grain driven?"

2) Did Mr. Samuels really get the yeast from Pappy Van Winkle? I couldn't find this info when searching the site, but that was probably a word string issue on my part.

3) Tangentially, is there veracity to the Bill Samuels "bread story" with respect to the "discovery" of wheat? Or could that have come from Pappy Van Winkle, too?

04-28-2004, 20:31
According to Sally Van Winkle Campbell ("But Always Fine Bourbon") and our resident expert and bourbon historian, Bettye Jo Boone, Pappy supplied Samuels Sr. with the yeast AND recipe. That's good enough authority for me. Even Bill Jr. has been known to admit it privately.

04-29-2004, 04:31
Thanks, Tim! The tutelage of Bourbonia is fascinating. Another history lesson learned, another myth challenged. I must admit, the MM bread story sucked me in. Let's face it - the idea of a guy baking bread for months (years?) with various recipes trying to find the right grains (or yeast) to create his mash recipe is so cool, I just wanted to believe it. The same principle that drives the spread of urban legends, I guess.

04-29-2004, 08:20
Personally, I'm inclined to believe the Maker's Mark bread-baking story,
albeit in a milder form. How many people here have one of those
bread machines? Did you go through a bread-making phase when you made
bread once or twice a week, for a few months? Baking bread is fun!
Add to that a fascination with what happens when yeast meets grain,
and a curiousity about different recipes.

As a matter of fact, I'm a little surprised that there aren't MORE
bread baking stories floating around out there.

I think the bread baking part of the story actually happened... but
the bread baking was not the source of the MM mashbill or the
MM yeast. It was just the tinkering of a man curious about how
it all comes together.

Tim Dellinger

04-29-2004, 10:33
I think the bread baking part of the story actually happened... but
the bread baking was not the source of the MM mashbill or the
MM yeast. It was just the tinkering of a man curious about how
it all comes together.

That would certainly make sense. The baking of the bread is described with enough detail that there was likely some truth to it. Perhaps Mr. Samuels felt that to be a good distiller, he had to understand grain; to understand grain and how it interacts, you have to bake bread? That makes a good story, but I guess over time, someone couldn't resist embellishing it to create the legend that baking bread led to the discovery of the yeast and the construction of the mash bill.

I wondered about the part of the story that includes the burning of the old family recipe, too.

04-29-2004, 15:36
The baking bread story is more on the order of a metaphor. It's a very good way of explaining to people the difference between a rye recipe bourbon and a wheat recipe bourbon. The problem with it as a form of discovery is that Samuels was familiar with wheat recipe bourbons. Though much less common than rye, they had been around for years. He knew some people, including his friend Pappy Van Winkle, used wheat recipes. Samuels didn't "discover" wheat recipe bourbon while baking bread.

I had lunch with Bill Samuels last Friday to talk about some of these very issues. He said the help his father received from Pappy was just the beginning. He also got help from Dan Street (Brown-Forman), Ed Shapira (Heaven Hill), Jere Beam (Jim Beam), King McClure (Stitzel-Weller) and one of the Motlows (Jack Daniel's). All of them at one time or another provided yeast samples. Pappy provided samples of new made whiskey so they could see how it was supposed to taste right from the still. One useful piece of information Pappy provided was that wheat mashes could not be cooked under pressure, as rye mashes often were. He says his dad always intended to make a wheat recipe bourbon because of the flavor.

04-29-2004, 16:04
In Germany, beer is often referred to as "liquid bread". And, in a broad sense, whiskey is distilled beer.

I tend to understand the story in the gist of, Samuels knew that both wheat and rye could be used as the flavoring grain and he was testing them for himself by tasting breads to decide which flavor elements he preferred to use for his whiskey. (Sorry for that stilted sentence)


04-29-2004, 16:52
Sorry, I must be a numbskull here but I just don't get why creating a new yeast strain would be all that valuable. Belgian brewers for years have been opening their vats to the elements for free-flowing yeast to ferment the wort. That's the lambic process. And they do a fine job of matching flavour profiles year after year. Because it's beer, then consequently a heavily distilled product such as bourbon could possibly stand the flavour injection. Just my thoughts. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif

04-29-2004, 17:28
Creating a new yeast strain isn't necessarily "all that valuable." In fact, distilleries that have wildly occuring strains propagate them and preserve them as unchanged as possible, and the other distilleries use dry bagged yeast from the yeast labs. I don't know much about the lambic process but there must be some way of controlling it so the result tastes good, but it is true that random wild yeast is the heart of that process.

Another interesting point. Although distiller's beer doesn't contain hops per se, hops are an ingredient in the yeast medium, as are some other strange substances, such as sulphur. I was told that Earl Beam (father of Parker, brother of Carl, son of Park) liked to use his yeast mixture as ice cream topping.

04-29-2004, 20:30
Just an aside:
Describing whisk(e)y as distilled beer is perhaps not as broad a description as Tim suggests, but pretty straight on. Whiskey is distilled from malted grain, just as beer is. Both are malt beverages.
They are at least as closely related as brandy/cognac (as a distillate of) is to wine.