Simple Yeast Starter

Plain and simple… fermentation control is what sets GREAT homebrew apart from OK homebrew. Besides controlling fermentation temperature (which’ll probably be a separate post… eventually), the yeast themselves are integral to a healthy fermentation. Pitching enough yeast cells will minimize lag time as the cells won’t have to replicate before beginning fermentation. When you pitch healthy yeast cell, you’re make healthy beer… the yeast aren’t stressing and producing off flavors. All in all, pitching enough healthy, active, yeast will make a better beer. Jamil Zainasheff, one of the greatest homrbrewers in the country, expounds on the benefits of healthy yeast in a new book Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation that he co-wrote with Chris White, of White Labs… one of the major brewing yeast producers. I’ve already covered how to get the most out of your dry brewing yeast by rehydrating… but how do you get the most out of a liquid yeast strain? The answer is simple… make a starter. A starter will allow the yeast to  replicate to the numbers you need for a healthy, vigorous fermentation BEFORE being pitched into your wort. The yeast will be active, as well… they’ve been in a semi-suspended state since they were packaged and shipped from the yeast lab… so they need to be roused… like being handed a warm cup of coffee when the alarm goes off at 5:30AM.

The benefit of a yeast starter is something most homebrewers can agree on… but, like most other homebrewing-related topics, the “best” method of how to actually make a yeast starter is up for debate. Some folks have professional chemistry labs in their basements… stir plates, flasks, yeast loops… typical over-the-top mentality. Some homebrewers, like me, figure out how to achieve the benefits and results without blowing an entire paycheck on equipment. I’ll spend the $1, instead of the $1,000… especially if it gets me to the same ends as everyone else. Here’s how…

What you’ll need:

  • Three days advance notice… if you’re brewing on Saturday, start this on Wednesday (“Smack” the pack on Tuesday).
  • 1 2-L plastic soda bottle (which you’ve pre-graduated to the 1L, 1.25L and 1.5L mark)… save the cap.
    • I’ve also seen 3-L generic brand soda bottles… they might be ideal, especially if you need to do a full 2-L starter.
  • Funnel that’ll fit into the pop bottle
  • 1 scale (which you already have as part of your brewing equipment)
  • 1 lb of pilsen DME
  • Fermcap-S (foam inhibitor)
  • 1 yeast smack pack, or one vial of your desired liquid yeast strain
  • Your sanitizer solution of choice.

…. that’s it.

Graduated this soda bottle at the 1, 1.25. and 1.5 Liter mark… and, so I never forget, I wrote how much DME to use. Never forget.

Now, here’s how to do it…

  1. Run your recipe through your brewing software. Using your predicted OG and the volume of wort you’ll be fermenting, plug the beer’s statistic into the Mr. Malty Yeast Pitching Rate Calculator to see how big of a starter you’ll need to make for your beer.  Enter the manufacture date of your yeast. Make sure to select “Intermittent Shaking” from the drop down, and hit “calculate”. For example, if I’m making 3.5 gallons of a 1.052 beer with yeastmanufactured in the middle of November, I’ll need a 1 liter yeast starter for my beer. If you need more assistance with figuring out the Mr. Malty Yeast Pitching Rate Calculator, Billybrew.com has a great tutorial on using the calculator.
  2. Now that you know how much starter you’ll need, you need to make a starter wort. Collect the volume of water you’ll need (e.g. 1 liter of water for a 1 liter starter, etc.)… then multiply that volume by 100 to determine how many grams of DME you’ll need… 100 g DME for a 1 liter starter… 150 g DME for a 1.5 liter starter… and so on. Bring that much DME and the water to a boil for a ten minutes so it will sterilize… cool in an ice bath to room temp. Going back to my example, I’m going to bring 1 liter of water and 100 g DME to a boil for my 1L of starter wot Mr.  Malty told me I needed. You’re shooting for a 1.040 SG wort… a lot of brewers will collect excess running or pre-make starter wort. But, it’s not that hard to do make the starter wort on the fly, as needed. It’s that simple.
  3. Once you have your chilled starter wort ready, pour it into you sanitized two liter pop bottle using a sanitized funnel. Next, pour in the contents of your smack pack or vial into the starter wort in the bottle. Add a couple drops of Fermcap-S to prevent a krausen blow out. Cap the bottle. Shake for a minute or two… or until your arms feel like they’ll fall off. Shake it like it owes you money. Set it back on the counter, and unscrew the cap until it just barely catches the threads… this way CO2 can come out, and O2 from the air can get in.
  4. Every time you walk past the kitchen (or wherever your start bottle is), screw the cap tight, shake it for a minute, then set it down and unscrew the cap until it just barely catches the threads. This is the “intermittent shaking” method… and your kind of simulating the agitation of a stir plate (without having to actually have a stir plate).
  5. Let it ferment (and continue to shake) for a day or two… once the starter drops clear, and the yeast fall out of suspension, cold crash the bottle in the fridge… do this by AT LEAST the night before you plan to brew so it can have eight-twelve(ish) hours in the fridge. This’ll get the yeast cake compacted in the bottom of the bottle.
  6. On brew day, decant the liquid from the starter… just pour the clear liquid off the top without disturbing the yeast cake at the bottom of the bottle. Stop decanting and leave about an inch of the liquid in the bottle… this’ll give you a little liquid to get mixed in with the yeast cake when it comes time to pitch. Leave the bottle out on the counter during the brew day so it has PLENTY of time to warm up to room temp. When you’re ready to pitch, shake the starter bottle to loosen and resuspend the yeast and pitch the contents of the bottle into your wort.
  7. … and that’s pretty much it. Might seems a bit complicated, sure… but it’s less fussy that the “stir plate method”… and you don’t have to invest in buying or take the time to build a stir plate. Just a left over 2 liter soda bottle… that’s it. Even homeless people have left over soda bottles.

More information:

Brew Strong: Yeast Starters

Mr. Malty

Northern Brewer: Complete process of making a starter on a stir plate, including how to step up a yeast starter for more cell count.

Northern Brewer: Yeast Starter (making the starter wort and adding the yeast)

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  1. #1 by The White Rabbit on March 7, 2012 - 9:52 PM

    What’s wrong with wheat DME!?

    • #2 by sean on March 7, 2012 - 10:03 PM

      Wheat DME will work fine, if that’s what you have on hand. I prefer Pilsen DME since you’re not looking for anything from the DME other than the gravity points for your starter wort… especially since you’ll be dumping most of the beer down the drain when you decant before pitching. Save the Wheat DME for a nice, simple hefe recipe… jmho, of course 🙂

  2. #3 by The White Rabbit on March 7, 2012 - 10:10 PM

    But what if you’re brewing the starter for a hefe? Or a big wheat beer, like a weizenbock? 😉

    Just messing with you…I almost never buy DME or LME these days, and when I do, I get wheat DME/LME…mainly because if I’m adding extract to anything, I may as well have it be wheat…either to make something bigger, or because I’m using some kind of HME that I got a great deal on, and again, why NOT add wheat to it instead of pilsen? Most people won’t be able to tell the difference, and you might get better head retention and lacing. 😉

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