Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The Genealogy Of Yeast


Joseph Lloyd Beam, Master Distiller, Bardstown, Kentucky.
(date unknown, probably late 1920s)

Yeast, and the different characteristics a particular strain can impart during fermentation, is a fundamental part of bourbon-making. 

Today, most yeast is created in a lab and manufactured in a factory, but before Prohibition making yeast was a crucial part of a whiskey maker's skill set. Back then, "making" yeast meant mixing up a special mash and using it to catch and propagate a suitable strain from a wild source. Yeast is a living organism, a type of fungus. It thrives in a watery environment, eats sugar in liquid form, and metabolizes it into ethanol and carbon dioxide. All of the alcohol you can drink is made by yeast. Like all living organisms, yeast can mutate and change. When mutations render it unfit, it has to be replaced.

At most legacy distilleries, those that started before the modern "bourbon boom," the yeast they use has connections to that earlier era. Therefore, the genealogy of yeast is essentially that of yeast makers. At distilleries such as Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Yellowstone, Maker's Mark, Barton, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, and many others, that meant one or more members of the Beam family.

Yeast mutates and humans adapt. 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 made their own subtle adaptations after years of practice and would have passed their way of doing things on to the next generation. 

Joseph L. "Joe" Beam was considered the dean of American whiskey makers on both sides of Prohibition. He was the son of Joseph B. Beam, whose grandfather was Jacob Beam, the ancestor from whom all whiskey-making Beams are descended. When Four Roses was revived after Prohibition, at a new distillery in Shively, they hired Joe Beam and bragged that he was bringing "the famous Beam yeast."

Joe Beam had seven distiller sons. Jim and Park Beam were his first cousins. His older brother, Minor, also a distiller, had several sons in the business. It's hard to find a distillery of that era that was not touched by a Beam. 

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. That version of the Beam yeast is known for a "foxy" characteristic most noticeable in the brand's standard white label expression.

Jim and Joe Beam's uncle was Jack Beam, who 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 the yeast strain they used was preserved and passed on to the people who revived Early Times after Prohibition. It is known that the yeast Brown-Forman used for Early Times was not the Old Forester yeast. 

When Park Beam's son, Earl, left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took that Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the yeast Joe's son Harry had been using. Earl tweaked it, as did his son and successor, Parker Beam. They did not, apparently, like that "foxy" characteristic, which is not evident in any Heaven Hill products.

According to family lore, Joe Beam received most of his training from his much older brother, Minor, who also trained Will McGill, a friend of Joe's who became Pappy Van Winkle's distiller at Stitzel-Weller. As journeymen, Joe and Will worked at Minor's distillery at Gethsemane, today's Log Still Distillery. They also worked together at Tom Moore's distillery, today's Barton 1792.

The Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark would have originated with Joseph B. Beam and probably went through Minor 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 Van Winkle gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not. No doubt he had his own ideas about such things.

His brother, Charlie, was distiller at the Pennsylvania distillery that became Michter's. Charlie trained Dick Stoll, who made the bourbon that became A. H. Hirsch Reserve.

After Joe Beam restarted Four Roses it was sold to Seagram's. His grandson, another 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. No company did more for whiskey yeast than Seagram's, which archived more than 300 different strains.

Minor's son, Guy, worked 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. Steve and Paul Beam, who run Lebanon's Limestone Branch Distillery, are descended from Guy.

I once asked Craig Beam, Parker's son and successor, if he thought anyone in the family could make yeast the old-fashioned way, capturing it from a wild source. He knew he couldn't, he said. His grandfather, Earl, taught him how to propagate Heaven Hill's yeast, to make enough for the fermenters, but not how to make it from scratch. When Heaven Hill moved to Bernheim, they switched to dry yeast rather than add a yeast room, which the rebuilt distillery did not have. 

Craig said he thought if anyone could make it from scratch, it would be Baker, but when I asked Baker, he just laughed.


Sam Komlenic said...

According to Dick Stoll, Charlie Beam brought Beam yeast with him to Schaefferstown, but once Charlie exited the business due to having suffered a heart attack in the very early 70s, that was the end for Beam yeast here. Dick used Red Star after that, obviously to great effect.

Richard Turner said...

So. Were there any actual "Beams" involved in the making Bourbon throughout America's distilling history? HA! WOW! Where would the industry be without 'em, eh?
It's fair to ask; 'Would there even be the industry we know today'? I for one am certainly glad all those 'Beams' contributed what they have done to my enjoyment of today's Bourbon.
Thank You, Mr. Beam! (All Y'all!) (And, all the wives and daughters, too, eh?!)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. I get a little geeky when I see discussions of all the Beam tendrils that wind they way through the history of Kentucky bourbon.

MR said...

Thanks for this. I'm still somewhat new to whiskey and thought that the deep discussions of yeast were over my head given my novice status. What little I did see, I found it too "sciencey". But your blog post here explains its history, which IMO is crucial to understanding it today. But I'm not sure many people know it, and the importance of homemade yeast is certainly something I don't think has ever gotten enough conversation. I'm not sure how many distilleries today have yeast makers. Thanks Chuck.

Patrick Skvoretz said...

Hey MR, yeast has a big influence on the taste of your whiskeys. Just try some different Four Roses recipes, or why Jack Daniel's products have a strong banana bread note, or Beam and its strong peanut notes, for example. Yeast is really important to flavor and generally overlooked by the general consumer.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Great stuff, Chuck. Thanks for sharing the info