Yeast & Fermentation Class for Distillers a Success
On October 4th and 5th I attended White Labs' Yeast and Fermentation class for distillers down in San Diego. The class was packed full of good information and it was attended by about a dozen new distillers. The attendees ranged in experience from professionals brewers to home beer and wine makers interested in starting a distillery. Overall the class was very well organized and the talks were professionally presented.
The main take away from the class was, treat your yeast well because it creates hundreds of flavor and aroma compounds that will concentrate in the distillate. So if you keep your yeast well fed, with sufficient nutrition and in the right temperature range they are more likely to produce the flavors and aromas the distiller is aiming for. In contrast, if the yeast are underfed, undernourished and in a less than ideal temperature range the yeast will become stressed and produce unpleasant flavor and aroma compounds. At worst this will foul the distillate and at best this will result in a spirit that will take some work to rectify.
Traditionally, yeast has been used, abused and ignored in the production of spirits. Take a visit to some of the large whiskey distilleries in the United States and you will find large, open, wooden fermentors. These systems have little or no temperature regulation and are open to contamination, both of which adds stress to the yeast. The much lauded sour mash fermentations of Kentucky and Tennessee are necessary with these types of systems just to give the yeast a fighting chance. These companies tend to focus their marketing stories on the art of the distiller, their water, grains and the details of how and how long their spirits are aged. But, no attention is publicly given to the yeast that do the hard work of creating the alcohol and congeners that go into the barrels.
The yeast management practices taught during the White Labs class represent the best practices accumulated over decades in the brewing industry. Craft brewers have know for quite some time that selecting a different yeast strain for the same beer will have drastic affects. Mikeller's Yeast Series is a perfect example of this. It should be no surprise then that, craft distillers are developing a similar view of yeast as their counterparts in the brewing world. Yuseff Cherney, head brewer and distiller at Ballast Point represents a new breed of distillers that are implementing modern yeast management practices with good results. Yuseff credits the awards and accolades for their Devil's Share Whiskey, in part, to how they care for their yeast.
Despite centuries of distilling practices and traditions, research into yeast's affects on the flavors aromas and mouthfeel of distilled spirits is still in its infancy. The class I attended was only the fourth time White Labs has ever offered this course for distillers. But, as yeast companies continue to work with small distilleries this body of knowledge will continue to grow for the benefit of all. White Labs, Ballast Point, and Bull Run are just a few of the evangelists for a new “gospel of efficiency”* for yeast. They and other distillers are discovering how modern yeast management practices can help them craft distinctive spirit profiles, which will allow them to stand out in a growing marketplace.
Ultimately, I think White Labs' yeast and fermentation workshop for distillers will be a boon for those who participate and for consumers. Craft distillers that can apply the lessons being learned about fermentation, distillation and maturation, will be able to have more control over the flavor and aroma profiles of their spirits. This should result in a growing number of high quality spirits for drinkers to enjoy.
* The “gospel of efficiency” refers to a philosophy of scientific management espoused during the Progressive Era. Proponents believed that using science to understand how industrial and organic processes worked would allow them to be more efficient, meet consumer demand and improve their profitability.