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April 06, 2021 3 min read

Do I need to make a yeast starter? 

How do I make a yeast starter?

What equipment is best for making a yeast starter?

These are all very common questions, and good ones to know the answers to as you progress. For starters, (pun intended) this is not something new brewers need to concern themselves with. This is more for the intermediate or advanced brewers out there that are looking for ways to step-up (again, pun intended) their fermentation game. 

Let's break this down part by part. 

Do I need to make a yeast starter? 

The answer is... it depends. Generally with today's yeast production technology and retail offerings, a starter is not necessary for most beers. Now, of course I wouldn't have written a post dedicated to this if there were never a need for starters, so let's break down when we don't need them, assuming you are starting with a new and sealed pack of yeast. 

  1. Low-to-medium strength ales - anything with an OG under 1.060 you are good to pitch a package of whatever yeast you are using. 
  2. Using dry yeast - yeast today is packaged under ideal growth conditions so it is ready to go straight out of the packet, if you need more yeast for your brew, pitch more packs of yeast - don't make starters, especially with dry lager yeast. Pitch a second pack and enjoy a great fermentation.
  3. Using Imperial Yeast - OK, major plug. I have stopped making starters with Imperial, because I have found it to be unnecessary, and this is one of those unnecessary brewing things that you should give up right away. Trust me.

So, when should we make starters for our brews? It sounds like all I want to do is sell you more yeast, right? While I do enjoy selling yeast, I enjoy the happiness (and delicious beer) that comes from a successful batch even more. In some situations this requires making a nice, healthy yeast starter. Let's break those down now. To reiterate, we don't make starters with dry yeast, so I'm always referring to liquid strains (or slurry).

  1. Brewing a lager under 1.060 OG - Iager strains perform better with a vigorous head start and higher cell count. Very appropriate to get a head start here. I will make exceptions to my no starters for Imperial Yeast here.
  2. High gravity ales - a starter is a great idea for all beers over 1.060 OG since stronger beers need lots of strong yeast to combat a somewhat harsh environment.
  3. Using older or expired packs of yeast - making a starter for any pack of yeast that is 3-4 months old is a good practice to get into that will yield better fermentations
  4. Shipped yeast - if you've ordered yeast (especially in the warm months) your yeast goes through some stress and is negatively affected unless you have it shipped in a cooler or take additional precautions. A starter is always recommended
  5. Brewing from harvested slurry - if you save yeast from a batch and don't use it within a month, a starter ensures you are pitching vigorous yeast.

What about strong lagers? The size of a starter you would need for a strong lager is ridiculously huge, or would require an uncomfortably large investment in the number of packs you'd need. There's a better way. Make a lower ABV lager (OG 1.040-1.045) and go ahead and use the slurry from that batch to make your strong beer. For example, start with a Helles and make a doppelbock to pitch directly on the yeast after you've packaged your Helles. This works incredibly well and you get another beer out of the deal.

This is of course just a guideline. You're not going to make worse beer by making a starter, but when you can save the time and effort why not do that? Making things easier while producing an excellent result is always a surefire way to increase the enjoyment of any hobby or effort, and that's our #1 goal. 

So, how do you make a starter? What equipment do you need? We'll cover that in the next post, where we will look at two different methods for making starters. Until then, keep those yeast happy and healthy.

Cheers!


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