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Hillbilly Winemaking 101: Yeast Basics

The introduction to this series is here, me rambling about sulphite use is here.

Though it may seem like the simplest thing in the world, yeast for winemaking is a very complicated issue and it’s one that you should take fairly seriously- you’re not actually the one making the wine, the yeast is.
Most people assume that you put the yeast in, and that’s that. The problem is, particularly with foraged fruit- there’s already yeast hanging out.
With grapes, in particular, there may be thousands of types of yeast just hanging around. They live on the plants themselves, in the dirt and pretty much everywhere. There are fifteen known types of yeast, but one is the golden child if you’re a winemaker. That would be Saccharomyces. Yep, loosely translated, “sugar shroom”, strictly translated, “sugar fungus”.
The odds are pretty good that if you’ve made wine, beer, or even just bread: you have used something from the genus Saccharomyces. There are seven species under that umbrella that you will encounter- but the one winemakers typically deal with is Saccharomyces cervisiae, or S. ellipsoideus, and some of the varieties therein. The rest of the yeasts that don’t fall under the saccharomyces genus aren’t good for wine, save for one, but that’s not really something you need to worry yourself over at this point: just stick with the sugar fungus.
The strains you’re going to encounter will all begin with genus name Saccharomyces. These include: bayanus, carlsbergiensis, chevalieri, diastaticus, logo, uvarum, fructuum, oviformis, italicus, hispanica, sake, pasteurianus, oxydans, prostoserdovii, sterineri, and vini. If you’re looking at a few of those names and recognizing places, you’re not incorrect: strains are usually naturally localized.
There is good reason for this, historically. Winemakers of a more traditional stripe will sort of compost their winemaking materials: feeding their grapes with the by product of the wine making process. That is, they will take the squished up muck after the fact, and give it right on back to their vinyard. The pomace, which is the pulp left over, holds tons of yeast and will be just loaded up with the strain that was used in fermentation. As time goes on, this changes that naturally occurring yeast already hanging out, and if the winemaker continues this, they have a more predictable end result in their fermentation process. Don’t take this to mean that winemakers who set up camp in places where vines aren’t grown, or haven’t been grown will have an automatic hold on things- this process can take centuries. It is, however, a legacy that many hope to achieve.

The truth is, you throw grapes or any kind of fruit in a mason jar in a dark place: the odds are good it will ferment. The odds are also good that your wild yeast is going to do whatever the hell it wants to do. The least it’ll do is taste like crap. The most? It can also introduce all manner of bacteria and other bad stuff into your must which can be dangerous. If you’re going cheap, it’s usually a better idea to just go ahead and toss out a buck for a pack of Red Star whatever. If you’re absolutely hell bent on winemaking in a jar, that one pack will do just fine for a five gallon. Personally, I’d just use a carboy, but that’s just me.
In Hillbilly Winemaking, we are clearly not gonna do that. For the purposes of home-brewing any given thing, you have access to a plethora of yeasts that have already been isolated and cultured, so you can inoculate your must with pretty much whatever you want. These choices do matter a great deal- remember, you’re not making the wine, your yeast is, so this is important.
The biggest reason is that you want to know which types work best in producing whatever wine you’re going for. Now, a professional winemaker is probably not going to use bread yeast in making wine: but you can. It’s really NOT a big deal. I have used it in mead, before with really great results. There is a lot of debate on this, but truthfully, while not all that sophisticated, bread yeast simply changes the flavor a bit. However, given for the purposes of this series, we are using blackberries: the yeast I choose will be better suited to the fruit I am using. That’s the big consideration, for me.
For this recipe, the yeast type I prefer to use is Lavlin D254. (This will run you anywhere from about 2 bucks to 50, depending on quantity) I find that it gives the blackberry a big BLACKBERRY! kick in the ass that’s definitely noticeable. (I also once used Clos, but I went in on it through a club I belonged to at the time. ) I will go more into this line of yeast in the next post on the series. As you go about ordering your yeast, you’re going to notice something- particularly with Lavlin: you may have to order a crapload of it. Red Star comes in smaller quantities. However, understand that one sachet- that small, five gram pouch, can typically inoculate anywhere from one to five gallons of must. In theory, you could do more than that, but you’d also probably end up with a lot of spoiled wine.

For the recipe itself, that’s easy- you’re going to want about 6-7 pounds of blackberries, 2.5 pounds of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of pectic enzyme, 7 pints of water and of course, the yeast and nutrient. (Again, this is not the recipe I am using in my winemaking this as I write when that begins, but it’ll do for this. Once you get going- with a little more handle on what you’re doing, you get creative. When you get creative, you’re like, “Nuh uh, you ain’t gettin’ my recipe at the pot luck, Aunt Mable. I know you! You’ll pass it off as yours. You got tequila on your breath, what are you dumping into that punchbowl?” and the whole thing becomes this big mess wherein Mable womps you over the head with a cassero- oh, that’s not how you do Christmas? Moving on…)


In the next post, we will put it all together and whattya got-

Er…the next post. Not bibbidy bobbidy boo. I swear.

6 thoughts on “Hillbilly Winemaking 101: Yeast Basics Leave a comment

  1. Forgive me if you've covered this in your other posts, but what do you ferment your wine in? I've never done any brewing, but have considered it. You have me intrigued. 🙂


  2. I have not yet gone into that, but if I understand your question- in the past, I have first used food grade plastic tubs coded 1,4 or 5- NEVER coded 7 (Recycling codes) because 7 means it has BPA. Then, I switch over to a glass jug or carboy. has a fairly decent selection for home brewing and they're not that pricey. 🙂


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