hist-brewing: Medieval/Renaissance yeast?

bjm10 at cornell.edu bjm10 at cornell.edu
Fri Jun 20 08:30:04 PDT 1997


On Thu, 19 Jun 1997, Andrew Carey wrote:

> Unfortunately, I now have another.  The discussion of yeast and mead 
> has me wondering which present-day commercial yeast would be most 
> similar to a medieval/renaissance ale/beer yeast.

We really have no way of knowing.  Furthermore, when you say
"medieval/renaissance", you are covering more than a THOUSAND years of
time and several thousand square miles of area, along a very broad set of
temperature and humidity clines.  Looking for a single commercial yeast
closest to this would basically amount to "pick anything you want". 

>     That said, I would think that most of today's ale yeasts have been 
> cultivated with the characteristics of modern styles (stout, IPA, 
> Scotch ale, etc) in mind.  That said, what (leaving aside all question 

Consider the astonishing variety of yeasts you've just mentioned within
just those three styles.  For my Imperial Stout, I had to choose among 
four different yeasts.  Two yeasts for my Scotch ale.  I don't much like 
IPA, so I've never brewed one.

> of starting from the ground up and culturing a strain from airborne 
> wild yeasts, with all the attendant problems) would be the closest 
> available strain for the brewing of medieval and renaissance styles?

Start out with a fairly neutral yeast with a broad temperature range.  The
problem is that the only thing we can guess about are brewing conditions. 
Actual yeast genetics is simply unknown.  Ideally, yeasts have an asexual 
generation up to every 90 minutes.  Sexual reproduction (and even S. cer. 
reproduces sexually) adds even more possibility of variation.

However, a subscriber to this list *has* captured a wild strain.  I keep 
meaning to ask if he would be willing to part with a bit of it--provided 
I send him something appropriate for him to send it to me on.

>     I don't know enough about historical brewing to answer this 
> question, but I have a couple of guesses.  The first thing that occurs 
> to me is that certain of the Trappist breweries are said to have 
> maintained their strains for as many as eight centuries.  Obviously a 
> considerable amount of mutation will have taken place, but none the 
> less might perhaps the Chimay yeast be a possibility?  The other is 
> Wyeast's "Swedish Ale."  I've never used this myself, but their 

Here's the problem:  These two yeasts have been specifically adapted over 
centuries to the specific styles of beer they're used for.  Thus, no 
matter how old the "strain" might be, it is no more "ancestral" than any 
other modern yeast.

Look at it this way:  The only thing that evolves as fast as yeast would 
be human culture.  It is no longer considered to be responsible 
anthropology to look at modern "primitive" peoples as representations of 
how Australopithecus lived...


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