When I was doing my 40/40 Tour, I got to talk to one of the owner’s of the Boxcar Brewing Company in West Chester. I asked him what he loved about brewing beer and he said it was fermentation. He got a look in his eyes normally reserved for those deeply in love with something or someone. Affection and awe would be two good descriptive words for what I saw in his eyes that day. He has a faraway look in his eyes. Sigh.
This dude’s background was that of a winemaker in California so he was well-acquainted with fermentation in regards to beer’s cousin, wine. He had come eastward to brew and Boxcar’s operation is in some dinky Industrial Park in West Chester. No frills and puffery. The beer-making was machine-like without being an industrial petroleum refinery. But, certainly not as tony as the vineyard and the vats. I like wine but much prefer beer, particularly well-crafted beer. The best wines and the best beers share much in common in terms of the process of creating an alcoholic spirit and the primary actor is yeast.
Today’s piece about homebrewing is the yeast. I really admire yeast; it lives to die. After it does its duty of converting sugars to alcohol, like an old soldier, it fades away. Yeast has many strains, all of which pull different flavors out of the ingredients. Some yeast strains are so proprietary, especially Belgian, that the breweries go to great lengths to protect their yeasts. I have heard Brewery Ommegang kills its proprietary yeast after the main fermentation is complete and then adds a second more generic strain to finish the process of carbonation. Pilferers can backwards engineer yeasts and create their own stock and once that code is cracked, it is kind of analogous to learning how to enrich uranium. It is only a matter of time that your adversary has the bomb. So, it pays to be secretive…because a good deal of what makes a beer the type of beer it is IS the yeast. Some strains go back hundreds of years and it boggles the mind to think how that historical age has made that particular yeast so specialized and refined at what it does.
When I went to brew two Saturdays ago, my yeast pack was all raring to go. I had punctured the sugary packet inside the yeast solution a few days previously and it was fuller than junior’s bladder on a cross-country car ride after drinking a 48 ounce soda. Giving the yeast a head start helps it hit the wort running. I hope to bottle the Belgian Wit to be today (if the gravity is OK…not having the right gravity can explode the bottles). So, respect and don’t trifle with the yeast. It is powerful stuff.