Monday, August 20, 2012

The Genealogy Of Beam Yeast

The post earlier this month, in which Sam Cecil briefly outlines the careers of the many Beam family distillers, raised a question about the yeast all of those Beams were using, not just at Jim Beam but at Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Yellowstone, Maker's Mark, Barton, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, and many others.

The specific question: Jim Beam's yeast has a reputation for imparting a 'foxy' taste, a characteristic not associated with any other producer, despite having Beams in their lineage. How come?

Historically, 'yeast making' meant propagating a strain from a wild source. Although the Beams all started from the same place, with the same yeast mash recipe, and were all taught the same organoleptic standards, each distiller in each generation would have made his own subtle adaptations after years of practice, and would have passed his way of doing things on to his son.

I say 'son,' knowing that some Beam family distillers were trained by their grandfathers more than their fathers.

Either way, the genealogy of the yeasts is essentially that of the yeast makers.

David Beam (1802-1852) had three sons who became distillers. If you're a fan of Underworld, think of them as the three sons of Alexander Corvinus.

The youngest, Jack Beam, started Early Times and although his only son followed him into the business, there was no third generation. That line died out. It's unknown if that strain was preserved and passed on to the people who revived Early Times after Prohibition, but it seems unlikely.

The other two were Joseph B. Beam and David M. Beam. Those two traditions split more than 150 years ago, and there have been many other subdivisions since.

Each of them had two distiller sons. Joseph B. had Joseph L. (Joe) and Minor Case, and David M had the famous Jim Beam and his brother, Park.

We know from Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, that the Jim Beam yeast was 'caught' by Jim on his back porch in Bardstown as Prohibition was ending and he prepared to build a new distillery.

When Park's son, Earl, left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took the Jim Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the Joe Beam yeast Joe's son Harry was then using. Under Earl Beam, Heaven Hill's bourbon had a reputation for being oily, but not 'foxy' like Beam.

I should note that, to me, the 'foxy' yeast characteristic is only noticeable in the white label Jim Beam expression.

It's hard to say what changed at Heaven Hill. It may have been the water. Yeast can change for very subtle reasons -- different water, different atmospheric conditions, different airborne microorganisms, different mash temperature, a different amount of back set, etc. The loss of the 'foxy' characteristic may have been deliberate, or an accidental by-product of different practices in a different place.

In addition to training his sons Joe and Minor Case, Joseph B. Beam may also have trained Will McGill. Will was a friend of son Joe, who married Will's sister, Katherine McGill.  Will must have been a good student because he became Pappy Van Winkle's master distiller at Stitzel-Weller after Prohibition.

It is likely Joe and Will also learned from Joe's older brother, Minor Case, who was 11 years Joe's senior. Minor had his own distillery at Gethsemane, which made the brand Old Trump, and which eventually merged with the nearby Yellowstone distillery. Joe and Will worked together at many different distilleries during their early careers, including at the Tom Moore distillery, today's Barton.

So the Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark would have originated with Joseph B. Beam and probably went through Minor Case to get to Will McGill, and from him into the hands of Elmo Beam, Joe's firstborn, who would already have been familiar with his father's version.

That Pappy gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not, at least not by me. Sam Cecil probably knew, since he followed Elmo at Maker's Mark.

Among his many feats, Joe Beam restarted Four Roses (then in Shively) after Prohibition, and employed some of his seven distiller sons there, as well as some of their sons. Seagram's bought Four Roses during WWII and Roy's son, Charlie, spent most of his career with Seagram's, where he developed the Eagle Rare Bourbon brand before finishing his career at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg.

Minor's son, Guy, was a distiller or master distiller at several different distilleries, including Heaven Hill, Fairfield, and Cummins-Collins. During Prohibition he was a distiller in Canada. Guy had two distiller sons, Burch and Jack. A third son, Walter, who was better known as Toddy, operated a liquor store in downtown Bardstown that still bears his name.

Jack worked for Barton. The two brothers who recently started the micro distillery Limestone Springs in Lebanon are descended from Guy.

Nobody is catching wild yeast these days and if distillers want to tweak their yeast, they do it in the lab, not on a back porch as Jim Beam did.


Ethan Smith said...

Pennco in Schaefferstown, PA used the Beam yeast. Dick Stoll told me that under C. Everett Beam, a tube of yeast was sent up from Jim Beam as needed and was propagated at Pennco into larger batches. After the retirement of Everett, the tube of yeast never returned from Jim Beam and Red Star yeast was used from that point on.

jdl said...

Chuck-can I ask some stupid questions? I thought yeast converted the sugars to alcohol and imparted no taste, then when the alcohol was distilled into a liquid, it had no taste. So do you think that yeast actually adds to the taste of the finished product?

Smithford said...

This post is crying out for a diagram. :)

Chuck Cowdery said...

jdl: yeast eat sugar and produce alcohol along with a lot of flavor. Different yeasts produce different flavors and the same yeast can produce different flavors under different conditions. You may have been thinking about how the spirit is colorless before aging, but it's not flavorless.

Smithford: the diagram you seek is on the Jim Beam website at

Anonymous said...

Don't Scotch distillers use a common industrial yeast? Why is it not important there?

Anonymous said...

I am not a in depth critic as you are but I will offer my opinion and a question regarding Jim Beam.

I personally do not like Jim Beam because it has "corn flake grainy" taste (actually something akin to the underlying flavor in tequilla). It is a preference thing because I am sure a lot of people like that flavor. I have even detected that taste in some wine. Is it the wood? Is it the mash?

Curious your thoughts on it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

American distillers estimate that about 1/4 of the flavor for an American whiskey is from the grain, 1/4 is from the yeast, and 1/2 is from the barrel. The grain would seem to be implicated in a 'corn flake grainy' taste, but it could be a combination of things.

I heard that before, about scotch makers not concerning themselves very much with yeast. Not sure why that is. You'll have to ask them.

Eric said...

Now I'm wondering if there are any Kentucky distilleries that have NEVER had a Beam work there at one point in their history.

M Lange said...

I know that in brewing beer, the two biggest contributors to yeast flavor are fermentation temperature and pitch rate (i.e. the volume of active yeast you are adding to the wort). You can take the same yeast and produce two vastly different beers simply by changing those two factors.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Made a correction to the above today. Charles L. "Charlie" Beam was Roy Beam's son. I mistakenly had him as Jack Beam's son. Charlie, who retired in 1982, died in 2007, and was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2010.

Unknown said...

After some research, I think that Joseph 'Joe' L. Beam's yeast strain live's on at Four Roses as one of its strains. I don't believe, as some have stated, all the Four Roses strains were created by Jose Pueblo in the 60s. Seagram's would have obtained this yeast strain when they bought the Frankfort Distilling Company in 1943. If they obtained the rights to this yeast strain that could explain why Joe Beam couldn't use it at Heaven Hill. In fact, I believe the Joe Beam strain was used by Seagram's at the Athertonville distillery to make Antique bourbon and also at their Louisville distillery to make Benchmark Bourbon. From what I've read about Seagram's Benchmark Bourobn, it's flavor profile matches very closely to one of the yeast strains at Four Roses. I know the Joe Beam yeast strain is PAD1+ and I guess the Jim Beam yeast strain is also PAD1+, which is why you often get a peanut nuance with Jim Beam products. The Joe Beam strain may be a related yeast, but it imparts a different flavor profile that masks the peanut flavor.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Some interesting theories, but I'd like to know where you got the idea that "Joe Beam couldn't use [his yeast] at Heaven Hill."

Unknown said...

Actually, in retrospect I should have left that part out as it is pure speculation. I chased the yeast strain through published papers and yeast banks, but I have no evidence that Seagram's bought the rights to the yeast. Could be that it just wasn't producing the flavor profile Heaven Hill wanted.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You have to remember that, in those days, 'Joe Beam's Yeast' wasn't a pure culture of a single strain, like we have today. 'Joe Beam's Yeast' was simply his most recent batch. Although Joe started Heaven Hill, his son Harry was the day-to-day distiller and, therefore, yeast wrangler. When he was replaced by his cousin, Park Beam's son Earl, Earl brought his own yeast.

Unknown said...

Absolutely!! Also, can't forget there must be contributions from various bacterial strains in the differnt cultures. I think many newcomers to American whiskey, and in particular bourbon, don't really understand the Beam family threads that run throughout the industry. Where would we be today without the Beams?

Back to yeast archeology, I have traced this particular yeast strain back to Seagram's in Louisville and Athertonville. My question is when did Seagram's begin to understand the importance of various individual yeast strains. I know in Scotland the M-strain became prevalent in the 1950s. Off course, Carlsberg understood the importance of different strains in the late 1800s. I also would like to know excatly when did Seagram's begin making Antique Bourbon in Athertonville?

There are a lot of questions surrounding this strain. It is the only one Seagram's put in the national yeast bank. It is the only one I know of that is available commercially. If you look at it's gemone it is special. Most yeast strains used in modern distilling are closely related to yeasts used for making beer. This strain is unusual, it is not closely related to anything and its genome is a mosaic of two different species of yeast. As a Molecular Geneticist, I find this very interesting.

On another issue, am I correct that Paul Jones originally owned the Antique Bourbon Brand and acquired Frankfort Distilling, Inc. so they could continue to sell the brand during prohibition? I understand you had a fondness for the Seagram's version of Antique Bourbon.

Chuck Cowdery said...

When Seagrams bought Cummins-Collins in Athertonville during WWII, it was making ethanol for the war. After the war, Seagrams transferred Antique bourbon production there, after it closed Frankfort. Maybe they sent Frankfort's yeast but it is just as likely they used a yeast made by Arthur Cummins. Several members of the Cummins family were highly respected yeast makers and if they had a yeast for bourbon that they already knew worked well there, there is a good chance they kept using it.

Unknown said...

Oh perfect, that is a big help. Is there anything about American whiskey history you don't know? :-)

Unknown said...

Oh, one more thing. You asked in a different blog about the ownership of the Antique Bourbon brand. I checked in the WIPO Global Brand Database and USPTO, as far as I can tell no one currently owns this brand. I was actually surprised.

Unknown said...

Well Chuck, you were definitely right about the Cummins'

"Richard Cummins was born in Carlow County, Ireland, May 8, 1830. When fourteen years of age he was apprenticed as a yeast maker, which was a profession in those days in Ireland." A Sesqui-Centenntial history
of Kentucky, Published 1945

It goes on to say that Richard taught yeast wrangling to his nephew Arthur Cummins, who taught it to Arthur J. Cummins, who co-founded Cummins-Collins Distillery. So the yeast I've been hunting could easily have come from the Cummins family.

Anonymous said...

You are tasting grain (rye) if it tastes like mineral and a bit earthy. You are tasting yeast if it is floral or nutty or extra fruity. You are tasting wood if it is…..woody.