Increased Options in the Use of Yeast Strains Leads to Distilling Boom

By Gerald Dlubala

It’s an exciting time for craft distillers, for sure,” said Kris Wangelin, manager and distiller at Square One Brewery and Distillery in St Louis, Missouri. “When you see what’s currently happening in craft distilling, it’s easy to believe that distilling is on the cusp of some amazing breakthroughs, comparable to craft brewing a few years ago. A big part of the anticipated breakthroughs includes the ability and willingness to experiment by combining and mixing available yeast strains, then playing around with the fermentation times. As a result, the distilled spirits consumer will benefit with new choices and innovations in taste profiles that will ultimately lead the way to unique cocktail creations.”

  Wangelin tells Beverage Master Magazine that, unlike before, today’s craft distillers have a mindset that doesn’t limit the available yeast strain choices they can choose to use in their distilling process. Rather than sticking to the traditional distiller’s yeast options, more progressive-minded distillers have a mindset that revolves around the simple question of, why not? With this type of inclusive thought process comes more significant occurrences and acceptance of crossover in the yeast strains used in both brewing and distilling. For example, there’s now more intermingling of strains previously considered only distiller’s or brewer’s yeast. In addition, craft spirits producers are open to experimenting with producing new flavor profiles and combinations that feature different depths and twists from the more traditional spirit profiles that consumers recognize.

  “Yeast strains are not strictly divided into distilling and brewing anymore,” said Wangelin. “Now, it’s more about experimentation and differentiation rather than passing on a particular strain or idea because it hasn’t been done. Now we’re excited to try it to see what happens. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes it’s a fail and sometimes we find that a particular flavor profile can be a good fit for something other than initially intended. But every time we try, we hone the specifics for future distilling success. We know spirits consumers generally have a favorite, go-to spirit profile, which becomes their home point when comparing other spirits. Still, we know they are willing to venture out to see what new flavor profiles may be trending and what possibilities are out there, and ultimately, it’s the consumer that will determine if our efforts are successful.”

  “And today’s spirits consumers also want to know the distiller and the product origins more intimately and personally,” said Wangelin. “A great way to differentiate our products from competitors is to remain as locally-based as possible with ingredients, yeast-driven flavor profiles and all related suppliers. Promoting our product this way makes everything more personal for our consumers. They see us vested in the community and then feel the same level of support by drinking our products.

  Additionally, the availability of any distinctive yeast strains offers us a way to create our own niche and become known as the place to go for that unique flavor profile or mash bill. When that specificity includes being from a local market or our own grain supply, as some are doing here in the Midwest, the consumer gets to see where our spirits start, making for a great story.”

  In the future, Wangelin sees the yeast providers experimenting more with different yeast strains and combinations to offer even more unique and varied flavor profile choices. It’s becoming common for yeast suppliers to ask a distiller what flavor profile they would like to produce rather than telling the distiller what’s available. Then the yeast supplier gets to work on developing and propagating new strains to meet the distiller’s desires. Why not?

Seek Experience and Results When Choosing a Yeast Supplier

  “In the alcohol business, taste rules,” said Dr. Pat Heist, co-founder, co-owner and CSO of Ferm Solutions and Wilderness Trail Distillery. “And when talking about yeast use in distilling, we know that some yeasts remain traditionally great performers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for experimentation.”

  Ferm Solutions is a leading research, product development, engineering and technical service provider to the ethanol and distilled spirits industries. They offer a two-day, 16-hour functional fermentation class that focuses on different fermentation levels using the same yeast strain.

  “Using 10 flasks with the same mash, we can achieve 10 different and very distinguishable results with only minor or minimal changes in the process,” said Dr. Heist. “Evaluations on those flasks reveal the easily recognizable and different attributes and developing trends due to those minor process changes.

  The difference in aromas is very distinguishable at the fermentation level. Ferm Solutions has done an excellent job identifying and selecting those yeast strains that perform best at the beer level. Once the beer is distilled, picking out those differences becomes more challenging because they’re now more subtle and enshrouded in higher alcohol content. After aging in a barrel, it becomes even more difficult and sometimes near impossible to differentiate the individual strains, especially with using and reusing barrels that may have held different spirits or alcohols.”

  “For new or inexperienced distillers, the main thing to remember is that a quality distilling yeast will always make a good distillate, whether you’re talking whiskey, bourbon, rum or other spirits,” said Dr. Heist. “That’s the starting point. First and foremost, craft distillers must focus on making the best product they can make. As much as they may want to venture into experimentation and try out new ideas, it’s always best to stick to a traditional plan and mash bill at the onset. Then, once they get experience in producing a great product, they can look at things like fermentation times and what the yield differences are when choosing to experiment and make changes to their proven production parameters.”

  Dr. Heist tells Beverage Master Magazine that the innovation and difference a distiller is looking for in their product isn’t always just a product of a new or unique flavor profile. It can also result from being in a unique locale or having a natural geographic advantage.

  “Maybe you’re producing your spirits in a region known for a specific strain of corn or other grain,” said Dr. Heist. “Use that to your advantage in spirits production and marketing plan. You’re a local spirits producer supporting your local makers and community. It’s a win-win situation.”

  Additionally, Dr. Heist believes that a distiller should choose a yeast supplier and producer with quality experience backed by round-the-clock technical support featuring someone that will pick up the phone when you call.

“We at Ferm Solutions know that a problem needs to be addressed now, not only during standard office hours. We started a craft distillery just eight short years ago and are now the 14th largest bourbon producer in the world, so I like to think that we know what it takes to succeed in this business.”

Whether Staying Traditional Or Experimenting, Focused Yeast Management is Critical

  “Yeast is a wily customer,” said Brent Elliott, Master Distiller at Four Roses Distillery. “It will find a way to flourish under many conditions, so here at Four Roses, we are mindful of possible contaminations or mutations by remaining extremely careful in our strain storage, use and management. Any little change in that yeast strain could change your flavor profile. Even if you think the change is minimal, it’s still there.”

  Four Roses uses five main yeast strains, the same ones they’ve used from their beginnings. These strains provide flavor profiles that include delicate fruit, rich fruit, herbal notes, slight spice and floral essence. Elliott tells Beverage Master Magazine that they haven’t wavered from those strains and are never more than one step away from the original mother strain, which is kept frozen until needed for propagation and the next batch.”

  “We frequently and consistently refresh and genetically test our yeast to maintain quality and authenticity,” said Elliott. “We propagate in-house, refreshing weekly if needed. It is one of the most tedious tasks we perform, but it’s also one of the most important and demands the most focus to maintain our quality and flavor profile.”

  Elliott said that the production of yeast compounds is a vital and tedious part of distilling, whether using single or multiple strains to produce and develop different flavors for your spirits. Of course, yields are essential, but when it comes down to it, yeast strains and their use are all about the desired flavor profile.

  “As a producer, you look at all the variables, including how high of an ABV beer is produced before distilling and the different flavors produced at different temperatures,” said Elliott. “The effects become very obvious when you approach it in analytical ways. For example, taste-testing distillate after different yeast strains like ours allows you to detect each unique flavor added through that yeast strain. It’s pretty cool that you think you can taste notes of a certain flavor profile with a distilled spirit, and then through testing, analytical processes and experimentation, you actually narrow down that implied flavor to a specific strain and get definitive reasons for experiencing that flavor. For example, our floral strain produces more phenol alcohol than other yeast strains, resulting in rose oil compounds that undoubtedly give you that floral note you get when enjoying our product. There’s a direct correlation.”

  Four Roses uses White Labs out of San Diego for most of its yeast products. White Labs has an inclusive catalog from which to choose yeast strains depending on your distilling goals. For example, a distiller can choose the traditional and more predictable yeast strains that have historically been successful or decide to experiment with the non-traditional strains. Another option is for spirits producers to provide their mash bill for customized yeast strains to be developed that fit into their distilling visions.

  “There really is a whole world of possibilities when it comes to choosing and using different yeast strains,” said Elliott. “When Seagrams owned us, we had a massive research department with over 350 yeast strains, each with unique details and characteristics. Now, especially with micro-distilling, those producers have a better path and more availability to experiment, innovate and produce new flavor combinations and spirits profiles.”

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