Each Hero of Beer has a unique character and role to play in the epic adventure that is Brewing.
Wheat is the golden hero, valiantly conquering greedy counts and restoring beer culture to peasants and hipsters alike. Barley is dependable, you want him in your corner. Hops is the bitter villain, contrasting so alarmingly with the heroes that you begin to see the merits of rebellion. And now, Yeast. Yeast is the comic relief.
When you’re on a grand but intense adventure, you want someone along to create a little fizz, a little delight. You want a wild one, someone who can get everyone riled up when things are getting too serious. That friend is Yeast.
Yeast perhaps plays the most important part in Brewing. Yeast gives beer the two elements that sets beer apart; alcoholic content and carbonation.
What makes Yeast so impossibly badass? What gives it the ability to bring joy and frivolity to just about every adult on Planet Earth? Well, it is alive. ALIVE!!!!! (*cue lightening and dramatic organ music*) Yeast is a living organism, a single-celled fungus that feeds on sugar. Sounds like my first boyfriend (though yeast is infinitely more useful). The yeast cell will feed on the sugar in the barley malt, called ‘wort’.In return, yeast gives off alcohol and carbon dioxide. It’s said that craft brewers don’t make beer; they make the wort, and yeast makes the beer.
There are many varieties of yeast, but the two main varieties used in beer brewing are called ‘top-fermenting’ and ‘bottom-fermenting’. Top-fermenting yeast gathers at the top of the beer during the first few days of fermentation and create that luscious head of yeast that beer drinkers love. Bottom-fermenting yeast sinks, and spends most of its transformational existence below.
Yeast varieties change the flavors of beer. Those that use top-fermenting yeast are ales, porters, stouts, Kolsch, and wheat beers. The bottom-fermenting years beers are Pilsners, Bocks and Dortmunders. But bear in mind, there are many different kinds of yeast, and all varieties offer different flavors to beers. Yeast is responsible also for the flavors of butter and butterscotch found in some beers, the spicy taste of cloves found in Hefeweisen, the fruits and esters in the aroma of bananas, strawberries, and apples, and even the aroma or taste of rotten eggs or burnt matches. All of these things are great, but if you’re beer tastes like the last flavors mentioned, you might want to try refrigeration or get a better job.
So, yeast is essential to the brewing process because it creates flavor. It also creates alcohol.
I’m sure you’ve been to a bar or read a beer label and seen the acronym ‘ABV.’ This refers to the alcohol by volume, and as I mentioned before, yeast creates alcohol. Remember that yeast feeds on sugar, and there is a lot of sugar in the ‘wort’. Simply, the more sugar in the malt, the more alcohol in the beer.
The actual art and craft of brewing is incredibly delicate. Yeast can get smothered by alcohol, sugars can take over and there is complete and utter mayhem in that brewery. However, when balanced, when done right, there is nothing better than something delightfully fizzy, swarthy with alcohol, with just a bite of bittersweet.
Yeast creates flavor, alcohol, and finally, the fizzzzzzzzzzzzz. Even the very word ‘fizzy’ brings to mind the image of bubbles of carbonation popping on the surface of a cold glass. I’m thirsty now, and the water that I’m drinking is so boring.
Yeast is responsible for carbonation, for the party , for the snap, for the fireworks on your tongue, because of sugar. Yeast converts the sugar to CO2 because of the enzymes found in yeast.
As a result of this conversion, little bubbles form and are pop and shimmer when they hit the air. Don’t you love holding your beer glass up to the light and seeing the superhighway of carbonation traveling up and up through your glass, finally popping in a delightful spray when it reaches the surface? I’m a dark beer drinker, and usually I can’t see anything when I hold my beer up to the light, but I remember being young! This awesome chemistry makes beer what it is. The fermentation process is so cool.
And we have a French chemist to thank for all our fun. In the 1850’s, Louis Pasteur demonstrated and proved the role of yeast in fermentation. Now, millions of craft brewers and home brewers alike are repeating the work that Louis Pasteur did so many years ago.
Beer brewing is an art and yeast makes it a science. It’s a tricky process, and deserves to be done well. Craft brewers are doing it well. They create a perfectly balanced wort, and the yeast does the rest.
So, yeast. The partier, the comic relief, the excitement, the character who makes everyone else characters.
Thank you, Yeast, you flirtatious badass!