Play that Yeast with the Funky Strain

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Every beer is made up of four ingredients: grain, hops, water, and yeast. It’s like a four-piece rock band. Hops are on vocals, getting a lot of attention, but sometimes receiving more credit than is warranted. Grain plays lead guitar. They can steal the spotlight if they choose, but often prefer to create music and make every song work. Water walks the bass. Cool lines thumping as both rhythm and harmony—everything sounds better, and the untrained ear, or palate, has no idea why.

But what I want to talk about is the oft-unsung hero: the yeast—the drummer. It can keep rhythm, but sometimes it just wants to put on a show. That eccentric side is Belgian yeast (omitting wild strains for this article). Coming alive like Keith Moon of The Who or Sheila E. with Prince. Focusing on the essentials at other moments à la Debbi Peterson of The Bangles.

Photograph provided by Sunshine Brewing Company

Before getting into the particulars of Belgian yeasts, here’s a quick reminder of the role yeast plays in the brewing process. After mashing, wherein grains are broken down to a sugar-rich liquid called wort, and after the boil, where hops are added to instill bitterness and aromatics, the wort is chilled, then the yeast is pitched. The yeast consumes the sugars, leaving behind ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast is quite sensitive to temperature—different strains thrive at temperatures where others would be inactive. If the temperature gets too high, yeast will die.

Back to it. Belgian yeasts are often noted for their phenols, associated with the spice and peppery notes in Wits, and esters, associated with fruity and floral aromas, including banana, apple, honey, and roses, common in Abbey-style ales. Lane Smith, owner and brewmaster of Sunshine Brewing Company in Lake Mills, discusses how manipulating temperature changes the way telltale traits come out of various yeast strains. “I’ve learned to play with the temperatures a lot. My house yeast is a really clean and dry-finishing strain. If I keep the temp down, it doesn’t really get a lot of the Belgian esters. This allows me to brew a beer such as True West (a West Coast IPA) without it coming across as a Belgian IPA. … If I’m brewing Tripel 8, our flagship Tripel, I’m using a different yeast that brings out a little more of the malt character I want and let the temperature rise a bit to get those great Belgian esters.”

An important note Lane makes, “There’s only so much you can do with temperature. A yeast strain is what it is.” Adjusting temperatures and the amount of fermentable sugars available to the yeast will give the beer different characteristics, but you can’t make a pie a cake.

Photograph provided by Sunshine Brewing Company

What you can do is make two variations of the same style of beer. “[Fermenting at higher temps] just starts to really bring out the different esters in the beers,” says Lane. “Stonefly Saison, it’s a pretty mild Saison—it really doesn’t punch you in the face. So we keep the temp [at 68 degrees Fahrenheit] because I just want this crisp, clean Saison. … Turn It Up Saison, we let the temp rise a little bit because I really want it to just have that peppery quality where you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a Saison.’ That’s a unique profile. With that one, it’s a great example of me just playing around and experimenting with flavor profiles.”

That’s the draw for me to Belgian yeast strains. They feel more like playing. In the brewing world, there are a lot of unwritten rules that, 95 percent of the time, are sage advice. However, those rules don’t always apply to Belgian strains. In fact, they almost challenge the brewer to see what they can and can’t get away with through some mindful manipulations in recipe and process.

One such rule is to not mix yeast strains. “With our Dubbel, we brewed it several times with different strains,” says Lane, “and ultimately ended up blending two of the yeasts to come up with kind of a different profile that when my assistant brewer and I first tasted it, we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re done. We figured out what we’re doing with this one.’ It really brought out everything we wanted—the raisins, the plums. Just what I was looking for.”

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Perhaps this speaks more to Lane’s experience working exclusively in Belgian yeasts. If you look into the topic, you’ll see a lot of homebrewers experimenting with blending yeast strains having mixed results. True that some of the macro breweries blend yeast, but to my knowledge it’s all the same strain per beer to ensure the Bud or Miller you drink today is the same as the one you drank 10 years ago. There’s an art to blending different yeast strains, and knowing which will take over is difficult. Just because you like, say, an orange peel note in one strain and a less tart, dry finish in another doesn’t mean combining the two will give you a pronounced orange peel note. Think in terms of colors—to get a richer black might mean adding dark blue rather than more black.

If a brewer is clever enough, and often patient enough, they can make yeast behave in unexpected ways with the right malt bill. The discovery aspect of brewing might not be more ubiquitous in Belgian strains, but it is often more obvious. “If I could make a nice Wee Heavy and use a Belgian yeast strain for it, I’d be like, ‘Okay. I figured it out. That’s pretty cool.’ It’s what keeps me excited about doing what I’m doing. … Trying to do normal things with different ingredients.”

Often I’ve heard the old adage “there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.” I hate it. I believe it speaks to people’s fears of changing the foundation to the things they’ve grown familiar with. Though I love traditional styles done flawlessly, variations born out of experimentation in the tried and true continues to help the world determine America’s contributions to the world of beer and style.

May who we are today
Test who we are tomorrow

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Sunshine Brewing Company does it all Belgian. Start with Diablo Sun and go from there.

Lane also recommends:
Ale Asylum—Tripel Nova, Bedlam
Dead Bird Brewing—Wine Thief
Giant Jones Brewing—Grand Tripel
Right Bauer—Screw the Dealer
Full Mile—Buoyant Regards
Door County Brewing—Little Sister, Big Sister