Ask Mr. Wizard

Blending Yeast Strains

TroubleShooting

Tor Mckee • Hanford, California asks,
Q

I am going to be making my first wheat beer and was thinking to try and step culture yeast from a bottle of really good hefeweizen. However, just in case I don’t culture up enough I am also going to use an American hefeweizen yeast strain.  I know that mixing yeast is OK to do, but what will happen exactly?  Will the yeast just share the sugars or will they blend to form a different strain of yeast all together?

A

I know that my conservative brewing advice probably irritates many readers and I am likely going to irritate you with my answer, so please take no offense.

So let me re-state your question. You have never brewed a wheat beer before, have nothing about your subsequent wheat beer to tweak and the first thing that jumps to mind is using the dregs from a really good bottle of hefeweizen to make a yeast starter. That’s an interesting idea . . . I suppose. But you need to keep in mind that many German hefeweizen brewers use lager yeast for bottle conditioning and many pasteurize their weizen before adding priming yeast and sugar or speise (wort). So it is possible to unknowingly culture lager yeast from the bottom of the bottle.

But you have a back-up plan; if all starts to go south you are prepared to add an American hefeweizen strain. I assume you mean a neutral ale strain used by American craft brewers to brew cloudy wheat beers without the phenolic, fruity notes associated with German weizen beers. If this were me, my back-up plan would be adding weizen yeast if the goal is to produce weizen. Many beers are fermented with mixed cultures and the result really depends on the cultures in the mixture. Since it is difficult to maintain a consistent mixed culture, most breweries prefer single strain yeast cultures for fermentation. Unless there is a really good reason for using a mixed culture, for example in beers that use a different strain for secondary fermentation, I agree with the modern and easy trend of single strain fermentation.

When I was a student at UC-Davis I decided to do something very similar to your plan for my first attempt at brewing Belgian-style ale. I bought a 750 mL bottle of Chimay, brought it back to the brewing lab and proceeded to streak the sediment from the bottle onto a Petri dish. I logically wanted to isolate the magic Chimay yeast strain from the source. After step one was complete, I propagated yeast from a single colony and anxiously prepared for the big brewing day. What followed was intense disappointment; the beer was so phenolic that the only thing it was good for was to use it as a standard for medicinal in tastings.

Here is my advice to you. Begin your wheat beer brewing career using a known yeast strain. Select it based on some sort of expectation. We brew a pretty tasty hefeweizen at Springfield Brewing Company using White Labs WLP380 Hefe Weizen IV. I like this yeast because it has more clove aromas in the nose than banana. We also brew a pretty tasty American wheat beer that has been our best seller since we opened in 1997. This beer is brewed using White Labs WLP001. Both of these beers are very clean and have short, healthy primary fermentations that are over in about three days. The only way to consistently have these types of fermentation cycles is to use good yeast.

Cut your teeth with a recipe for success and then venture outside of the box once you know what you are seeking from the bottom of that bottle of weizen from across the pond. Otherwise, you really have no idea where your journey may lead!

Response by Ashton Lewis.