hist-brewing: Pre-Industrial Yeast Ranching

Nick Sasso njs at mccalla.com
Thu Sep 30 05:56:01 PDT 1999


You and Scotti are right on from where I sit.  Deflating myths is an important part of the education of brewers and the public on the technology of our craft.

The most challenging part to me is finding that line where beer was, indeed, chance innoculated or spontaneously fermented.  We know it happened, and that it was the ubiquitous method in some places and in some times.  The royal pain is finding references that indicate when, where and why the brewers decided to harvest and repitch.  We have several references for several places as to the fact that they were harvesting and reusing  yeast, but not for all cultures.  And, I'm not aware of specific sources that say "In 1234 in York, the brewer's guild decided to sweep up the dried powder in the bottom of their fermenter and use it again."  We probably never will, and that presents a welcome challenge ot us as brewer/scholars to find out a better idea, than we each already have, of when and where different techniques and ingredients were used.

18 th century is awfully cool, and it only begins to approach the history of beer making.  Apicius references beer/ale in his 3rd century cookery book, but not how it was fermented or what went into it.  Just a statement that it was for common men and less refined than wine.  

I suspect that they did not harvest yeast in that culture of superstition and Dionysis/Bacchus, but don't know for certain from my readings.  I am always pushed and tapped by your message of "they did it in some clever way back then that wasn't barbaric".  I just don't always get answers quickly enough for my tastes :o)

Are there other, earlier, historical references in that book on yeast harvesting?  I am truly inspired at this point to delve.  1700's is great!  Maybe there is still hope for info on Umbria Region of Italy1250-1350.

Nick Sasso


Scotti's point about pre-Pasteur era brewers skimming yeast with a broom
and using it to inoculate the next batch is an important one. The
too-common notion that practically all beer/ale was spontaneously
fermented before the 19th century just riles me. Even if they had no clear
conception of the biochemical basis of fermentation, yeast was no more of
mystery to brewers than to bakers. Odd Nordland's excellent _Beer and
Brewing Traditions of Norway_ devotes a chapter to the yeast management
techniques of traditional house-brewers and includes a number of photos of
brooms, sieves, and perforated sticks used to collect and preserve brewing
yeast. Sure, this isn't the Weihenstephan yeast bank but it's not
spontaneous fermentation either. Some of the yeast-gathering implements
shown in Nordland are dated (literally inscribed with the year) to the
18th century, if not earlier still. I suspect that an ornately carved (to
maximize surface area) log like one of those illustrated in Nordland is
what the labels of Norvig Ale mysteriously refer to as a "totem stick."
Wouldn't you all just love to see someone culture and market one of these
antique Scandinavian brewers' yeasts?

Spontaneously yours,

Donald Beistle
Athens, Georgia
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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