Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's The Deal With Wild Yeast In Bourbon Making?

I have written that Jim Beam uses 'wild yeast' and was just asked twice in as many days what I mean. Unfortunately, the term 'wild yeast' is used by different people to mean different things. In the case of Jim Beam and other 'practical distillers' of American whiskey, here is what it means.

Yeast is, of course, required for fermentation, which is how alcohol is made. Yeast eat sugar and produce alcohol, carbon dioxide, and also flavors. There are millions of different yeast strains and each produces different flavors.

To obtain a 'wild yeast' for making whiskey, a yeast maker would mix up a yeast mash from his own personal recipe, typically one taught to him by his father or uncle. The yeast mash would be a different recipe from the whiskey mash, as its purpose was to make yeast, not whiskey. He would set it in a preferred location and wait. Booker Noe told me that Jim Beam used his screened-in back porch and 'stank up the house' according to Mrs. Beam.

The yeast maker would wait until the mash began to ferment. He would then watch it, smell it, and taste it, to see if it had the qualities he preferred. If it didn't he would try again, over and over, until he got one he liked. He would then propagate it, typically keeping it cool so it would work slowly, periodically transferring some of it to fresh mash in another container, keeping it alive the way a baker does with sour dough starter. This was known as 'jug yeast' because it was kept in a sealed container that looked like an old time milk jug.

The yeast strain would be cultivated in this way and used for as long as possible, indefinitely if it made good whiskey. This was the great skill of the old time distillers, who were sometimes referred to as 'distiller and yeast maker.' Craig Beam has described to me how his grandfather, Earl Beam, taught him how to use the Heaven Hill distillery's version of the Beam family jug yeast to produce enough yeast for production. It was a three day operation that had to be done once a week. That was Craig's first lesson in distilling.

Eddie and Jimmy Russell also have told me yeast making is the distiller's most fundamental skill.

Craig and Eddie have only learned how to propagate the jug yeast for production. They haven't learned how to make yeast from scratch. I asked Craig Beam if he thought anyone today could make a good whiskey jug yeast from scratch. His answer was "maybe."

8 comments:

Dave Pickerell said...

While capturing wild yeast strains is a dying art, the process was demonstrated for me by a friend that learned it at the American Culinary Institute.... so the practice IS still taught. While a number of distillers are propagating strains of yeast that were formerly wild, I am unaware of any that are still capturing wild yeast.

sam k said...

Pretty cool post, Chuck. I had no idea...

mong said...

Hi Chuck,
Love hearing the handed down stories about the real Whisky making, it also tends to break the science down to a level I can almost understand it

Have noticed quite a big difference in Scots & American Whisky in how they talk about yeast. In Scotland we just buy some in that gives them a good yeild of abv per tonne once every few weeks from one of two firms who seem to supply everyone, the biggest difference ive noticed is that Diageo use a liquid one. Where as in America it seems to be about proprietary yeast strains, any ideas about difference in attitude?

Also, on a slightly different note, wondered if you could illuminate me about the doubler? Its a pot still attached to the beer column I understand, I'm assuming it's feed continuously and so the Whisky flows from it continuously without splitting heads or tails, which Im guessing have already been dealt with by beer still? Is it all about the reflux then?

Cheers

Craig

Chuck Cowdery said...

I can't speak to the attitudes of scotch makers. I don't really know.

As for doublers, they are pots but they run continuously. They primarily 'polish' the spirit by eliminating unfavorable congeners that exist in very small quantities. The concept of 'heads and tails' doesn't apply in a continuous distillation system.

mong said...

Thanks Chuck

Matthew Colglazier said...

This sounds like the perfect project for an enterprising craft distiller -- perhaps a series of "wild yeast" white dogs? If it's not a trend yet...

Chuck Cowdery said...

I know of no one who is attempting it but I agree that someone should.

charles said...

Thanks Chuck. I was one of four "yeast makers" at Glenmore distillery in the mid 1950s.(Kentucky Tavern) Long before I joined the group there was a big fire at the facility and they lost all their stored yeast...as I understand. Fleishman's Distillery, also in Owensboro, KY was kind enough to give us some of their strain. We stored our yeast in thick copper jugs, with spouts welded on the tops.

Sure wish I had one of those jugs for memories.

Dr. O