Come mid-April, Brew Master Brian will, along with 10,000 other industry professionals, hop a plane to Portland for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, where he’s especially pumped for a master class on yeast management. And why shouldn’t he be? Yeast is the reason your mom’s homemade banana bread rises. It’s the main ingredient behind the sandwich spread of choice in the land down under, where women glow and men plunder. It also happens to be everywhere (yes, chilling all over you and everything you own right now.) And, most importantly for our purposes, it’s crucial to brewing. Bottom line: yeast is one fascinating, microscopic fungus.
Allow us to explain:
In beer making, step one is mixing malted barley with hot water — viva la oatmeal! Then, a sugary liquid called wort is extracted, and flowers called hops which lend aroma and flavor are added to that. Only then does the ingredient of the hour come in. The single-celled superstar we call yeast now chows down on sugar, turning it into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The former is the psychoactive drug part of beer that you can blame for those 2am texts to your ex; the latter makes bubbles. This conversion process is known as fermentation, and the temperature at which it happens determines whether your brew baby will be born a lager or an ale.
There are over 500 species of yeast, and Brewer’s Yeast is just one. But within that group, there are thousands of distinct strains that can each affect a beer’s flavor profile in a different way. Which one a brewer selects is often a tight-lipped decision — as top-secret as Elliott’s hiding place for ET in the midst of a federal task force investigation (sorry – there’s a Spielberg documentary playing as we type this).
So yea, it’s safe to say the significance of yeast is common knowledge within the modern brewing field, but this wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, wild, airborne strands were doing work on batches of beer completely unbeknownst to early brewers. In fact, yeast wasn’t even considered an ingredient in beer-making until French chemist/original beer geek Louis Pastuer discovered its role in fermentation in 1857. Thus began a centuries-long struggle to harness its power. And bearded brew masters across the globe still bend to its magical, gaseous will! Many of them, including our Bri-guy, will be doing just that in Portland, and he promises to keep us updated on the conference happenings.
It may be one of the simplest plant forms on the planet, but yeast – the little fungus that could — has done okay for itself.