Continuing our series on factors (including grains and hops) that contribute to the higher cost of craft beers, let’s take a look at yeast. There are many types of yeast that can be used in brewing. Oftentimes, a brewer will use more than one yeast in a particular brew. For instance, a lot of the sour beers that have become more popular in the marketplace use multiple strains.
Obviously, the more specialty yeasts or variety of types a brewer uses, the higher the cost of the product. A corresponding lessening of cost is associated with fewer yeast strains. Our macro brewing friends mostly use one consistent lager strain, so there is lesser cost for those who use this one strain. Micro brewers, on the other hand, make a variety of styles, include multiple strain styles in a beer, and some even use fresh yeast to bottle carbonate/condition their beer (again, this is extra money for the brewer).
So, where does all this yeast come from? Large brewers are able to purchase lab equipment, propagating equipment, and storage space for yeast specimens, which they keep in house. Their ability to do this pays the expensive equipment off over the course of time. They simply don’t have to keep buying yeast from labs and storage facilities. This is a major financial advantage to not having to continually purchase yeast.
So, where is the micro and craft brewer in the midst of this? It is true that some craft/micro brewers operate closely enough to a large brewer or a brew pub that they simply get yeast off the cone of the larger operation. Simply stated, in the process of fermentation, yeast in a beer settles out to form a yeast cone, and healthy yeast can be taken (mostly from the middle) of this cone. This yeast is then incorporated into the small brewery’s wort on brew day. Often, a small brewery will pay for this privilege. Other times, where a good relationship exists between the little guy and larger guy, the small brewer can get the yeast free of charge. The major problem with this approach is the concern about quality. One can never be sure of the brewing practices associated with the other guy. Essentially, you put your faith and fate into the hands of the other brewer… so this is by no means the dominant method.
Many small brewers have to purchase (pure samples) from yeast labs in order to get the yeast they want. These stocks of yeast are kept and controlled by companies who do the lab work to ensure purity of sample. Since lab work isn’t cheap, fair amounts of cost can be associated with purchasing yeast time and time again, especially when more than one type of yeast is used in a beer. One way that small brewers deal with this is to re-pitch yeast from their own cones. In other words, the yeast that has been produced in one brew is put into the next. This can be tricky business, since different yeasts have varying amounts of potential for being re-pitched. In the end, the brewer must periodically send yeasts to the lab or conduct in-house tests to ensure yeast health and viability.
More often, though, fresh samples need to be procured. The yeast arrives in a small amount that is not high enough in volume to ferment the amount of wort that the brewer makes. As a result, propagation must happen by expanding the yeast cell count. This is done by adding the initial amount of yeast to a small amount of wort. Once that is done, the larger amounts of yeast are added to a larger amount of wort…and so on. Propagation happens until there is enough yeast established to ferment the desired amount of wort. Even if larger brewers do have to propagate, we’ve already established that their material costs for propagation (grains or otherwise) are less than that of smaller operations.
Is the cost difference for larger vs. smaller breweries significant? The short answer is that it certainly can be. Even if the difference is not massive, it is one more point in the brewing process where extra cost is tacked on to the craft brewer. This, in addition to other factors, adds to the total cost of the beer you see on the shelf. Hopefully, you are seeing why it’s more expensive to buy better beer.
Very informative, Mike. Well done.
Thanks. I was worried that it wasn’t that clear.
Interesting stuff. Its amazing how much goes into what I always thought was a very simple product!
Most places I have been re-use their own yeast strains multiple times on end. At the local brewpub here, they simply just pitch a new batch directly on top of the yeast cake and aerate the shit out of it.
Yeast is incredibly expensive, and re-using/washing the yeast is the best way to save money in brewery operations.
It really depends on the yeast type, too. Some will handle generation after generation. Other times people will pitch new every time, especially if they are looking for high degrees of consistency. As you know, yeast changes over time, so I know some people are careful about using it too much. I know that on my homebrewing scale, I’ve used a yeast for three or four generations on several occassions…and it does save money.
It’s amazing once you think about it. Part of this whole thing to to wake people up to why the craft stuff costs more and to get them drinking it.
[...] price of craft beer over macro beer, Mike has written three fantastic articles on Hops, Grain and Yeast. In an intentional, and hopefully not boring, deviation from the ingredient nature of the series, [...]
[...] http://thankheavenforbeer.com/2009/12/01/the-cost-of-beer-yeast/ [...]