August 2, 2013

Many beers but few yeast strains

There are a lot of yeast strains available on the market. Even if you count the Wyeast, White Labs and dry Lallemand that are duplicates (or assumed to be equivalent) as a single strain, there are still a lot of strains available. Adding to those three major players in the yeast market are up and comers producing small batches of other saccharomyces strains and various sour mixes and brett strains. Commercial brewers have access to all the same strains we have, plus other strains available through the larger yeast banks, such as BSI. However, while homebrewers have a tendency to use lots of different strains, most commercial brewers maintain a single strain in the brew house or limit themselves to one or two main strains and use the occasional alternative for particular beers. (The Chico strain - WLP001/WY1056/S05 is probably the most common strain employed in breweries in the United States.) Should homebrewers follow commercial brewers and use fewer strains?

I do not believe homebrewers should imitate commercial operations blindly. Commercial brewers follow certain practices (and decline to adopt others) based on the limitations of their equipment, size and practical needs. While I do believe we should mirror their quality control processes and look at their other processes to improve our own, we do not have the same practical needs or limitations. Commercial brewers tend to use a limited number of strains as a practical matter. It's not like they can just throw some smack packs in the back of the fridge and pull them out as needed. They need consistency and timely production of beer. That necessitates using a minimal number of strains that will produce solid, repeatable results. It's not advantageous to pick a strain that dumps out a lot of diacetyl and needs a long clean up period when that means tying up a fermentor for an extra week or two. Homebrewers on the other hand do not have those restraints. We are free to experiment at will and sit on our beers until we are happy with them.

However, there are a couple reasons why it may make sense to limit the number of saccharomyces strains you use in your brew house. One very simple reason is cost. If you are buying a different strain each brew that's $3-10 you're adding to each batch (although if you are anti-yeast rinsing then you're not going to avoid that cost regardless). Second, it's hard to get a good understanding of a strain without seeing how it performs under different circumstances, especially if you have good control over fermentation temperature, pitching rate and oxygenation. Only using strains in the "preferred" temperature range leaves a lot of opportunity on the table. All but the most neutral strains can create a wide range of flavor profiles. Many strains, particularly English strains, can produce clean ale flavors in low 60s or upper 50s but become more expressive at higher temperatures. Trappist/Abbey Belgian strains can be spicy and witbier strain-like at low 60s but incredibly fruity in the 70s. Differences in attenuation can be accounted for by mashing higher or lower or even adding some table sugar during the boil or fermentation.

That isn't to say that homebrewers should throw out all possibilities and commit to one strain. Experimenting with new strains is fun and you might find a new saccharomyces strain you like better than your current favorites. However I suspect most homebrewers make the majority of their beers within two or three yeast profiles and you could probably find each of those profiles within one strain by adjusting temperature and other conditions. It's just a question of your ability to control those conditions and your desire to use technique or ingredient to create your beers. You're never going to make the Chico strain taste like a hot saison fermentation but you can probably ferment that saison strain at different temperatures to make a variety of Belgian-style beers.

Just something to think about.


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