Yeast, brewing myths and the ideal house strain.

Developing a house yeast strain

A couple of things on twitter have resonated lately, both of them linked to Andy Parker otherwise known as @tabamatu.

The first was this:

“Isn’t it time we focused on British styles of beer again and reclaimed our crown? We have the best malts in the world and a great heritage.”

And this:

@NMBCoBri “My dream is to brew a killer Best Bitter, like Harvey’s.”

These two statements resonated with me, Harvey’s best bitter is the finest bitter I’ve ever tasted and it’s been far too long since I had one.

There are great examples of excellent beers from traditional breweries all over the UK, Hook Norton, Fullers and Shepherd Neame but what is it about these beers that makes them so interesting and amazing?  I’d thought for a while that it was malt character and quality and especially malt complexity that help create such an interesting beer at a modest abv. This was certainly a tack I tried to take when I was brewing commercially but when you look at these beers and their recipes you’ll find them to be simple and very much the same, Maris otter, crystal, flaked maize (sometimes), fuggles and goldings hops. This really doesn’t leave much else apart from yeast and that in fact I think is the key, traditional British beers, even though they are fairly ubiquitous are exceptional because the main character building ingredient is the yeast.

Now while I agree completely with Andy I doubt much is going to change until US breweries start brewing 4% traditional bitters and British brewing and drinking trends come full circle, what those statements did do for me was direct my thinking about a comment John Keeling made about Yeast being the most important ingredient in brewing and the reliance on yeast and in particular some of the current thinking around what makes a yeast a good yeast.

I’ve never particularly tried to hide my distaste for the ubiquitous triumvirate of West Coast Yawn, SO5, WLP001 and 1056 and their latest recruit BRY97. Bland yeasts that leave beer empty and bereft of character they’re yeasts in the UK that any brewery trying to emulate US character must use creating a clone army of Stone wannabes.

The reason for the popularity of these yeasts is that they’re American, ergo they make American beer, not only that they make AMAZING American beer. Unfortunately this pernicious thinking has become the rule leaving other extremely good yeast strains unused. The problem with this approach is that it’s oversimplified, and inherently wrong, yes supposed clean yeasts will help hop character shine but this is not always the case and a lot of other yeast strains will do the same job and bring more to the beer.

Not every brewery in the US uses the same yeast and not every brewery in the UK that makes great American style beer uses them either. A great example from the UK is my experience at Thornbridge and Buxton, when I started at Thornbridge we used a yeast strain that came from Holt’s brewery in Manchester, not the sexiest brewery in the UK and certainly not a hop forward US style brewery but the yeast is fantastic and Thornbridge took the UK beer industry by storm with a range of expressive US style hop driven beers. I left Thornbridge and became the Head Brewer at Buxton, I quickly ditched the yeast Buxton were using and put in place the same strain brewing some excellent beers. This strain is also used by Brewdog for Punk IPA and Jackhammer and adds to the character in amazing ways.

Similarly some of the most famous US breweries utilize a house yeast strain that you wouldn’t expect, Stone has their own strain taken from a Canadian brewery, 3Floyds purportedly use Fullers yeast strain, Firestone walker use a British ale strain (apparently also Fullers), The Alchemist Heady Topper is brewed with an English ale strain called Conan.

The point I’m trying to make, albeit in a circuitous and dishevelled manner is to keep an open mind, yeast isn’t just there to do a job it’s a crucial part of flavour and aroma complexity, a lot of my experimental brewing involves split batch fermented beer to compare and contrast the impact that a yeast strain has on the finished beer and the results are astonishing.

I still haven’t discovered my ideal house strain, I loved the yeast I used at Thornbridge and Buxton but have no access to it now, I’m currently experimenting with Fullers, Anchor, Pacman (Rogue) and Harvey’s using these yeast to split batch ferment different styles of beer to assess their pros and cons. I’m hoping to also test brew with Conan and I’d LOVE to get hold of some of Oakham Brewery’s yeast if anyone knows a source?

Formerly of Fullers, Thornbridge and Buxton. Now a freelance Black IPA advocate, homebrew geezer and creator of Baby Back Bacon Black IPA™

12 Comments

  • Reply February 13, 2015

    Ed Mason

    How possible is it to blend yeasts in a homebrew environment or would one strain take over?

    • Reply February 16, 2015

      JK

      Hi Ed,

      Blending yeasts is definitely doable and very useful. on the whole yeasts are blended to
      1. Enhance flavour/aroma profiles
      2. Improve fermentation/attenuation performance
      3. Improve flocculation

      Depending on the strains you’re blending and the proportion your blending them at will determine whether or not one strain takes over. For example blending WLP001 and WLP002 at 50:50 will improve flocculation of WLP001 while keeping the high attenuation of the strain. this will however slightly mute the ester profile of WLP002. In theory it is possible to improve attenuation of a yeast strain by blending as little as 5-10% of a high attenuating strain with it. Cropping and repitching a blended yeast however is a touch risky because there’s no way to know how the yeast strain population has changed.

      Cheers

      JK

  • Reply February 13, 2015

    Matthew

    There will always be drift when using two strains or more. More or less dependant on harvesting technique. However that has never put me off.

    Adnams is the brewery to talk about for yeast based flavours.

  • Reply February 13, 2015

    Josh

    In case you didn’t know (I presume you might do though), the Yeast Bay sells the Conan Strain under the guise ‘Vermont Yeast’ – http://themaltmiller.co.uk/index.php?_a=viewProd&productId=598

    • Reply February 18, 2015

      JK

      Hi Josh,

      I did indeed, I’ve got some coming although mine is as a slope salvaged from a can of Heady Topper.

      Cheers

      JK

  • Reply February 13, 2015

    Jon Rowett

    Agree that yeast is king, and English yeasts are some of the very best. But part of the problem is that there are a lot of really ropey English micros out there churning out disappointing bitters and dodgy, hop-backward “US inspired” pale ales that are probably not great when they leave the brewery, and by the time they reach the pub they are even worse thanks to inept handling and sanitation on the part of the brewer. They are of course doing British cask ale a massive disservice as I think our beer deserves to be put on the same standing as American and Belgian beer. But quality control at present is very poor in many places up and down the country, cask ale is harder to handle, and the end result is a minefield of mediocre “maris otter + challenger + fuggles + Nottingham yeast + fish guts ( + diacetyl, + aceto, + oxidation)”.

    By comparison, some of the very best beers currently being made in this country are using US05 or a variant. It’s absolutely the right tool for many jobs, and the fact is that many of the brewers using it are taking far more care in practicing their art than the legions of retirement fund microbrewers knocking out twiggy, cardboardy 4.2% batches of Old Fartknocker and treating the whole thing like it’s a “bit of a laugh”.

    Stone, of course, are reputed to use a dry English ale yeast, although I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these American house strains of English origin have adapted to some extent, with selection pressure influencing their character in a more American direction.

    I’m currently brewing a lot with good old WLP002 (“Fullers”) and trying to push it as far as it will go, brewing both CAMRA-friendly brown beers and proper hop bombs, but I haven’t yet reached a conclusive decision about making it my house yeast (I’d like to, it’s a well-behaving yeast, but I worry about those muted hops).

  • Reply February 16, 2015

    Jim

    I would also love to get my hands on some Oakham yeast JK. Great for hop forward beers and yet it has a great house flavour that you can spot a mile off (sulphur). Any idea of the source?

    • Reply February 18, 2015

      JK

      Hi Jim,

      No idea unfortunately…I need to borrow a cask, take some yeast from it and propagate it up!

      JK

  • Reply February 16, 2015

    Jim

    Also, good information on the Holts yeast. I had heard a story that Thornbridge got their yeast from Kelham Island and that Martin Dickie had taken the same yeast to BD after working at Thornbridge but I had never heard the source was Holts…

    Amazing when you think of the type of beers they make and how they taste. It always astonishes me how big a difference treating the same recipe with a different yeast can make (was also lucky enough to visit the whitelabs tasting room last year) or even using the same yeast under different conditions (I live in Sweden and 3 breweries I know use S04. Two make very good hop forward beers (Oppigårds and Dugges), the 3rd (Ocean) makes “British” style beers, the difference is that the 3rd brewery ferments at much higher temps as well as having a more “british” focus to their recipes).

  • Reply February 18, 2015

    Daniel

    I’m only just starting to experiment as my batch size goes up. Only just done my first split batch with a hoppy American Amber. One half of the batch with US-05/WLP001 and the other with US-04.

    I bottled it yesterday and the 04 is tasting far superior with some delicious fruity esters that compliment the US hops and improve the overall taste and aroma. Quite surprised by this given the mantra that anything but a super clean yeast is unsuitable!

  • Reply June 6, 2015

    Corwin

    Hi, first of all great article. I just wanted to query something, you stated thornbridge use a certain yeast but I have it on good authority from a brewer they use wlp001 and they prop it up in their yeast tanks. Do you know what the strain used to be? I.e. is it available for home brewers.

  • Reply June 20, 2016

    Jake

    Oakham yeast is the old Home Brewery Yeast strain from Nottingham

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