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Thread: Making Yeast

  1. #1
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Making Yeast

    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.

  2. #2
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    Re: Making Yeast

    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)

  3. #3
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    Re: Making Yeast

    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.

  4. #4
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    Re: Making Yeast

    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

  5. #5
    Bourbonian of the Year 2006
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    Re: Making Yeast

    Jeff,
    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

  6. #6
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    Re: Making Yeast

    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?

  7. #7

    Re: Making Yeast

    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.

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    Re: Making Yeast

    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.

  9. #9
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    Re: Making Yeast

    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

  10. #10
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    Re: Making Yeast


    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.

 

 

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