The first beers I made were fermented with liquid yeast, my process looking something like this:
1. Take yeast out of fridge a few hours before brewing
2. Once wort was chilled to about 75°F, open vial and pitch
3. Place fermentor in closet and hope the airlock is bubbling the next day
While those first few beers were nothing spectacular, they still came out pretty damn good, at least to the point I never dumped a batch. It wasn’t until I really got serious about brewing at home that I even heard of yeast starters, which I initially viewed as being more work than it was worth. After a couple batches that just didn’t come out the way I planned, I figured one of the more simple things I could try was making a starter.
I’ve never looked back.
I fairly regularly field questions about whether making a starter is really all that necessary. My honest response is always the same: no. The truth is, you can make a perfectly good beer by pitching a single vial or pack of liquid yeast into wort. In fact, I recently heard from a dude who said he took 1st place in category with a beer he didn’t use a starter on, which is fucking great! And I’m certain he’s not the only one with a similar story. So what’s the point? Why invest the time and money making yeast starters when it is obviously possible to make a delicious beer without one?
Now, I’m no microbiologist. Not even close. I could pretend to know more than I do about budding and conjugation (thanks Wikipedia), but the simple fact of the matter is I’m hugely ignorant when it comes to these issues. What I do know is that I love, in an almost lustful sort of way, what yeast does for beer. I’m fascinated by the amazing plethora of flavors different types of yeast can create and how it acts differently depending on the environment. After hundreds of batches, fermentation still seems like magic to me. I abide by the doctrine that brewers make wort, yeast make beer.
While starters may not be necessary, they absolutely serve a function. I’m not sure new brewers ought to stress too much about this part of the process, at least in the beginning, though the investment is fairly minimal for what I believe to be a good payoff. Below are some of my main reasons for making yeast starters:
– Visibly observing yeast activity in a starter provides me with assurance the yeast is viable and ready to go to work turning wort into beer.
– While in the starter, yeast go through a growth phase, meaning there are significantly more cells being pitched into my wort, leading to decreased lag and a quicker fermentation with less chance of off-flavor development.
– Pitching a starter has significantly increased the consistency of my brewing, making it much easier for me to replicate a batch.
– Free yeast for future use! How would I harvest clean yeast if I didn’t have a starter to steal it from?
I’m sure with a very little searching, numerous other reasons for making a starter can be found, along with much more scientific sounding explanations why one should make them. My point is this: in my brewing, making starters seems to have had one of the biggest impacts on the quality and consistency of the beer I make.
How I Make Yeast Starters
I see a lot of starter how-tos that differ from my process in various ways. With my penchant for simplification, I’ve settled on a method that seems to require a little less effort and has worked well over the years. The first step is determining the proper starter size, which is a function of the OG of your wort, batch size, and yeast age. Yeast Calculator is my calculator of choice. All you have to do is plug in the aforementioned details, select a “method of aeration,” and it’ll spit out the details. Easy-peezy. Just remember to a make a larger starter if you plan to harvest yeast for future use!
Yeast starters require little in the way of equipment, of which there are many options. I personally prefer using 5 liter Erlenmeyer flasks for myriad reasons, such as the ability to make larger starters for lager beers and larger batch sizes. I also have a 2 L flask that I occasionally use for smaller batches of beer. I’m a huge fan of StirStarter stir plates due to their very affordable price-point, durability, and lifetime warranty (they make a new larger model now as well). While not really a piece of equipment, FermCap-S (anti-boilover agent) is an absolutely necessary part of my yeast starter kit that has saved me from more volcanic eruptions (and clean-ups) than I can count. That’s about it. For those who aren’t ready to invest in a fancy flask and stir plate, a clean and sanitized growler shaken every time you walk by will get you by, as well. If you’re good with electronics and have the desire, you might also consider building your own stir plate.
Step 1: Weigh out DME and add it to your clean flask (a funnel helps)
Step 2: Add hot tap water from the faucet (if good quality, otherwise use cold), swirling the flask at first to fully incorporate the DME
Step 3: Once proper amount of water is added (I usually go a hair over my target to account for boiloff), swirl a bit more to make sure there is no DME stuck to the bottom of the flask, then add a couple drops of FermCap-S
Step 4: Place flask on stove, turn burner to high
Step 5: Watch the flask and turn burner down to low-med once bubbles start rising from the bottom of the flask.
Step 6: Once wort is boiling, set timer for 10 minutes… and watch for potential eruptions! A quick blow down the shaft of the flask will kill any large bubbles that may form.
Step 7: While wort is boiling, make a small bowl of sanitizer solution for the foil and stir bar
Step 8: When the timer goes off, carefully move the flask (OveGloves are a godsend) to a sink with the stopper in place, drop sanitized stir bar in, cover top with sanitized foil, then surround it with ice and cold water.
Step 9: Once wort is chilled to about 70°F, pitch room temperature yeast, set the flask on the stir plate, and get things spinning.
Step 10: About 36 hours later, and after stealing some yeast for future use, I usually move the flask to the fridge to crash overnight so I can decant the beer off before pitching. Don’t forget to attach the stir bar to the side of the flask with a strong magnet before crashing.
In the end, starters may not be totally necessary for beer production, though I think most experienced homebrewers would agree that it is one of the easiest ways to improve beer quality and consistency. If you’re looking to step up your game, I strongly encourage you to consider making a starter for your next brew.
ATTENTION: There is some concern Erlenmeyer flasks run the risk of shattering if placed directly on stove-top burners, particularly electric coils. If you share this concern or have small children around, you might consider boiling your wort in a pot before adding it to your sanitized flask.
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