Yeast’s Lament

When you look into a beer glass, or indeed a wine glass, and consider what has gone into the making of the product you increasingly realise how complex that process is. Having had a go over the years at brewing homemade wine from the excessive amounts of Bramley apples that come off our tree – a tree that is probably older than the house, and which amazes me every year by not dying and seeming instead to get more productive, to my consternation with what to do with the produce – I can testify that as well as care and skill, a fair amount of luck is also needed when working on a small scale with limited resources and space. At least the luck is needed to produce something that might be considered drinkable.

I was trying to think about what is particularly interesting to me about the production of alcoholic beverages and came down to the fact it is an unequal partnership between me and another living organism. I think that people have a tendency to forget that yeast, whether used for baking or brewing, is a living organism, a unicellular fungus. Brewing is not just adding substance A to substance B, throwing a bucket of water and some sugar into a vessel and watching a chemical reaction. What we are doing is creating a temporary environment for yeast to feed and multiply, and the alcohol is the by-product of that activity. Or rather one of the by products, as while that nice glass of Pinot or pint of London Pride may look clear and enticing in the end it is a cocktail of interesting organic chemicals of which ethyl alcohol is only one, and many of the others are (like alcohol itself of course) toxic in one way or another, or rather would be in sufficient quantities. But it is this mix that also provides the flavour and texture to the drink that takes it beyond an attempt just to get drunk and making drinking the pleasurable experience it can be if managed carefully and individually – as everyone’s body works a little differently and that includes processing and management of chemicals.

The conditions are vital. The vessels need to be clean; the sugar source, whether grapes, apples, grain or whatever needs to be the right quality for what you want to achieve. The sugar, the water, the temperature and the type/strain of yeast to be used equally need to be chosen carefully. Get any of that wrong and the end product will be at best below par. Poor sterilisation might result in natural strains of yeast and other micro-organisms getting into the mix and becoming dominant – and while this is sometimes the actual aim, the results will be extremely variable in comparison to a brewing yeast.

In a commercial operation of course this is crucial and cannot be left to chance as consistency is a priority. Get it wrong and at best you have wastage, at worse the business might be undone. I do not have to worry about that, and it is just as well, as I do not have the ability to control conditions sufficiently in the space I have. In particular I cannot keep the temperature correct and consistent for optimal fermentation; and so my little yeast friends do their best, but like any of us working in a poorly heated office, our product and productivity is impacted.

So when it comes out OK, I feel quite pleased. But sadly, my poor yeast friends do not get to enjoy the triumph of a half drinkable apple wine, or a slightly less winky wine from my mother in laws vine. No. They are left first to starve themselves as they happily convert most of the sugar to alcohol (also eventually poisoning themselves), and then I effectively make sure by murdering them all by the process euphemistically referred to as ‘stabilisation’. Still, they have had food and lodging presented to them on a plate for many generations by this point so perhaps I should not feel too guilty. Maybe instead I’ll just raise a glass of our dodgy co-production in their honour. Cheers!