Virginia Brewery Tour, Charlottesville Brewery Tour, Charlottesville VA Beer Tasting, The Beer/Yeast Relationship Ben Franklin once said “Beer is evidence that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Maybe you’re more of a skeptic and a sensualist, and think beer is evidence that human beings will find any and every way to manipulate their surroundings to bring them pleasure. Fair enough. Whatever beer-based belief system you hold, you must reckon with the mysterious power and elegance of nature’s alchemist, yeast.
As the key agent of all fermentation, yeast has been the unsung hero of alcohol for most of its existence. In 1516, German Beer Purity Laws inadvertently outlawed yeast when it limited legal ingredients to water, hops, and malt, and it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that yeast was even discovered and named. Fortunately, a brewing tradition of handing down one’s wooden stirring spoon as a family heirloom was enough to keep yeast in the game. And in the midst of these avid and oblivious brewing families, yeast was making intelligent and finely tuned alterations, turning that water, malt, and hops into beer.
The process begins by extracting the sugars from grains with boiling water, and the resulting substance is called wort. Then that wort is boiled with the hops, after which the yeast is pitched into the beer and sealed away. At this point, the yeast takes stock of it’s surrounding, discerning what sugars, Free Amino Nitrogen, and other nutrients it will be asked to break down, and then begins to reproduce aerobically, preparing itself for the specific task ahead.
Unlike other micro-organisms, yeast can live and grow with or without oxygen, so when that oxygen is used up, it switches its metabolic pathway and begins anaerobic activity, and this is where the magic happens. When yeast breaks down sugars by anaerobic methods, it releases ethyl alcohol, and CO2 Did you hear what I said?! This means that the brilliant idea of a carbonated alcoholic beverage was not some brilliant human mind at work; it is something deeply fundamental to the very character of yeast and it’s relationship to the world.
But yeast is more elegant yet. As it breaks down the sugars, it also produces other desirable compounds. It releases esters that cause the fruity notes in beer, phenols which produce the spicy notes, and diacetyl, which gives off a butterscotch flavor. And while there are indeed some undesirable heavy compounds produced at this point, yeast knows its shortcomings, and like any great artist, knows how to turn its shortcomings to its advantage. After finishing fermentation, the yeast returns to the byproducts of earlier action and further breaks down these heavy compounds into fruitier and spicier flavors, granting even more character to the beer.
We have only scratched the surface of what this tiny organism can do, but its mysterious intelligence and its benevolent relationship to the world are certainly worthy of our consideration. Yeast went unnoticed for centuries while applying its very nature to these tasteful purposes, and produced the symbol and sacrament of our leisure and celebration. Perhaps it is an eternal truth that the work of the benevolent gods will always go unnoticed as humanity continues on its hurried way. These metaphysical questions are far too much for our present conversation; my only hope is that you will carry with you an understanding that at the very least, beer is evidence that yeast loves us and wants us to be happy.
We hope to help you find pleasure in the wonderful world of beer on a Virginia Brewery Tour