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What's the truth on pitching rates?

People of Earth: It’s been awhile since I posted here but I have a question for you all. I have been brewing for 15 years now and have tweaked a number of my processes and brewing strategies in the areas of water composition, mash, sparge and kettle pH control, etc. One area I continue to get some static about (from fellow brewers) is my pitch rate. I use a lot of Wyeast and White Labs yeast. If I have a very fresh Wyeast activator (ale), I’ll smack it and pitch it directly into well-oxygenated wort that is maybe around 1.050. I will keep that primary cool (low to mid 60s) and get good activity and eventually good beer. I will reuse that yeast a couple times and pitch more on subsequent batches (200-300 milliliters is common). If I make a lager or I’m using White Labs, I typically make a starter with 650ml of water and ½ cup of DME which many, many people have told me is a very small starter. I will use some Wyeast nutrient in the boil of the starter and then chill it, add a little pure O2 with a stone (a number of people have said this is pointless but I feel some oxygen can’t be bad for something that’s been bottled up for awhile!), add the yeast and then get it on the stirplate. I usually get activity within about 24 hours and pitch the entire contents of the starter. I get quick-starting primary fermentations with no off-flavors. I make relatively small and balanced beers including light styles like pils, helles, blonde ales, American wheats, etc. and I think flaws would show if I was underpitching. I had a vial of WLP011 with a BEST date of April 2014. I made a starter as described above and someone said, “That starter is less than half of what you need to do” (I was making a 1.052 Altbier with it). That starter got active and foamy in 24 hours and I brewed with it right away, pitching the whole thing into well-oxygenated wort. I have never stepped up a starter. Ever. I generally make beers that are between 4.5% and maybe 6%. This is not me thumbing my nose or bragging and this is not me assuming everyone else is wrong. But a lot of people have sunk many of my beers anywhere from standard beer drinkers to craft beer enthusiasts and homebrewers and it’s always well-received. I just sent some beer to a fellow homebrewer in Wisconsin and he really liked the beer I sent (he sent me some as well) and we agreed to be brutally honest with each other. Why do people suggest you need a swimming pool’s worth of active yeast and how am I getting away without it? Cheers Beerheads.

Nuff said! IMO, try more yeast for a couple batches, if it doesn’t make your beer better, then what’s the point? Do what works! :cheers:

I would assume you’ve read and understood “Yeast” by White and Zainasheff.

Pitching Rates are defined by yeast growth formula produced from experiments.

There are many limitations to these experiments, however.

Off the top of my head:

1.) Not every yeast strain is tested nor accounted for in the formula. Just one strain is used.
2.) Not all types of wort are accounted for
3.) Not all types of water are accounted for

If you aren’t decanting/crashing your starters or pitching cold, you’ll probably always see good start time to fermentation, simply because active yeast is well active…

Why do your beers taste good? Because you’re not brewing outside your normal range of 4 - 6% beers.

Try brewing a big beers, Belgians, RIS, Scottish Ale, make a DT or Westy 12 clone, etc… especially with the large malty lagers like Eisbock… you’ll notice a difference with an appropriate starter and cold pitching.

Alas, it’s a hobby and if you don’t need to make starters… more power to you.

Have you entered your beers into competitions? Win any medals?

I don’t ask that snidely, just as a reminder that certain individuals (could be BJCP certified judges) can sometimes pickup things that would go unnoticed otherwise.

I will say that maybe 25% of the beers I make are a “first-run” of the yeast so that batch either came from a fresh Activator (if it was an ale) or one of these small starters. Subsequent batches where I pitch slurries usually get around 200ml of slurry (ale) or 300ml (lager) according to MrMalty.com. I did send some beer into competitions years ago and won a couple where they were best in category but I eventually got away from comps mainly because I hate packaging and sending beer and I never know how the beer will travel, etc. I also got good comments from judges on beers I thought were subpar and adverse comments on beers I thought were better so I concluded that there isn’t much I can harvest from comps. I am very critical of my beers. If I taste something I don’t care for, I try to determine what it is. Could be the 3rd or 4th run of the same yeast and it mutated… very possible. I am very careful with primary temps (lagers in a fridge set to about 48°, ales in a large plastic bucket with 10 gallons of cool water in it and frozen water bottles rotated to keep the temp low and stable) and I like a ‘clean’ beer with little-to-no esters. Many of the beers mentioned above I do not make. I generally don’t make beers over 6% and I don’t make Belgians, big stouts, etc. I guess I just wonder about these guys who are always making 4L starters and bumping them up 2, 3, 4 times.

* shrug *

Ken- I consider you one of the ‘experts’ of this forum. Your advice over the past couple years has always been helpful. I’ve brewed a couple of your recipes with great success.
So, if you say your pitch rate works for you, then I say “bully”.(T.R. reference)
Keep up the good work, and brew on!

Ken,
I have always been a little puzzled by Mr.Malty’s Pitch rate calculator. I often use it, but notice that it usually calls for a higher pitch rate than Wyeast recommends on their pitch rate website. I guess I have always thought better to pitch more than less. With that being said, I have had numerous batches where I under pitched according to Mr. Malty and have had very good results. I use a lot of harvested yeast. I think Mr. Malty tends to underestimate yeast viability on their calculator. I find I can often use 30-50% less yeast slurry than they recommend and still have active fermentation within a few hours. Unlike your beers however, I tend to brew a little higher gravity beers. Most of my beers are 6-9% abv.

I have not read the book “yeast” but will probably have to purchase it to find out the science behind pitching rates.

I guess I have always questioned why, if Wyeast claims one activator is good enough for one 5 gallon batch up to 1.060 would you need to use a starter. I’m guessing they have some pretty high paid chemists doing their research.

Works = good

Gentlemen: Thanks for the replies.

The MrMalty calculator is indeed unusual but I typically end up seeing somewhere around 180ml for an ale (give or take) and closer to 300ml of slurry for a lager and I just try to get in the range… a little over or under is not going to hurt. I have heard that overpitching can cause beer to lose some of the flavors that yeast produce during their cycle and these are flavors that beer drinkers find pleasing… so there appears to be a range. I have always theorized that you can pitch (okay, underpitch) healthy, active yeast into a sanitized, well-oxygenated primary and the yeast will reproduce and start fermenting. It might take longer but will it create off-flavors? This altbier I pitched the WLP011 into was bubbling about 5 hours after pitching the [undersized] starter which I think is pretty good. The aroma from the airlock is very nice. Also, I admit that I have the book YEAST but I have only looked at a few things here or there. Same with WATER because if the content gets a little too complex and scientific, I’m out. I can handle everything as long as I’m following along but once it seems to go off the tracks, I have to put it down. I should probably try to go cover-to-cover on YEAST and see what they say could go wrong if you don’t pitch enough yeast. Cheers!

Under pitching will increase esters, which is good for some styles and bad for others. In most instances, I’d rather slightly over pitch, but again I think it mainly depends on style, OG and yeast strain. :cheers:

What if I underpitched but consistently kept fermentation temps low? Would that even out the ester production? I don’t seem to get more estery beer if I pitch from an Activator or use one of these small, active starters.

Ken I was wondering where you’ve been! Hope all is well.

I too have questioned this. While I don’t encourage people to under pitch, I too have found that Mr. Malty requires a lot of yeast for “proper” pitch rates.

I’m a lot like you in that I will make a starter. Not so much to grow a boat load of yeast, but to get them up and going.

[quote=“Ken Lenard”]
What if I underpitched but consistently kept fermentation temps low? Would that even out the ester production? I don’t seem to get more estery beer if I pitch from an Activator or use one of these small, active starters.[/quote]
Great question. Either or both “should” cause increased ester production, but I guess it only really matters if your taste buds can tell. I still say if your process makes good beer, you’re doing it right and that ester influence varies greatly between style, OG and yeast strain. Try it both ways and do a side by side taste test?

[quote=“Loopie Beer”]Ken I was wondering where you’ve been! Hope all is well.
I too have questioned this. While I don’t encourage people to under pitch, I too have found that Mr. Malty requires a lot of yeast for “proper” pitch rates.
I’m a lot like you in that I will make a starter. Not so much to grow a boat load of yeast, but to get them up and going.[/quote]
Cheers Loopie. Yes, make sure the yeast is active and ready to go. I would never pitch one of these starters if they didn’t seem active just like I wouldn’t take an old Wyeast pack out of the fridge, smack it and pitch it immediately or open an older White Labs vial and just pitch it. No, no, no.

[quote=“Hades”][quote=“Ken Lenard”]
What if I underpitched but consistently kept fermentation temps low? Would that even out the ester production? I don’t seem to get more estery beer if I pitch from an Activator or use one of these small, active starters.[/quote]
Great question. Either or both “should” cause increased ester production, but I guess it only really matters if your taste buds can tell. I still say if your process makes good beer, you’re doing it right and that ester influence varies greatly between style, OG and yeast strain. Try it both ways and do a side by side taste test?[/quote]
It could just be that our hobby is filled with variables and when you find a good way to make beer, don’t question the other stuff or what works for other people. I try to remember that everyone’s system is different, everyone’s tastebuds are different and everyone’s expectations are different. I have never really liked the overhandling of yeast. I have great respect for yeast and I know its health and activity are going to make the best beer. I assume I cannot duplicate lab-like conditions in my house so I try to handle it as little as possible and I try to make sure its happy. LOL. But I can’t know what the yeast is in need of or what I can do better with regard to its health other than what I’m doing. I also can’t count yeast cells (I like it when someone says that they pitched 430 billion cells) so I typically state yeast volumes in milliliters.

Cheers Beerheads and enjoy your weekend whatever you’re doing!

Ken I sometimes wonder if “proper” pitching rates are based on commercial standards ( of course they are) with the issues of the higher pressure put on the yeast in their conicals.

What I means is:
We all know the higher pressure of the wort/beer in a 15bbl fermenter helps the yeast clean up and produce beer quicker. But I wonder if they need a higher pitch rate to get the yeast active. In addition, they need more growth for the yeast to consume 465 gals compared to 5.

I will admit that one thing I have done is starter to do 2.05gal experimental batches. This not only allows me to try different things it grows a bigger population of yeast.

[quote=“Loopie Beer”]Ken I sometimes wonder if “proper” pitching rates are based on commercial standards ( of course they are) with the issues of the higher pressure put on the yeast in their conicals.

What I means is:
We all know the higher pressure of the wort/beer in a 15bbl fermenter helps the yeast clean up and produce beer quicker. But I wonder if they need a higher pitch rate to get the yeast active. In addition, they need more growth for the yeast to consume 465 gals compared to 5.

I will admit that one thing I have done is starter to do 2.05gal experimental batches. This not only allows me to try different things it grows a bigger population of yeast.[/quote]
Yeah, I think someone did mention that the rates might be for commercial brewery scale production. We have a discussion on another board each week which is like “WHAT IS EVERYONE BREWING THIS WEEK?” and you here guys saying that they’re building up their culture of [whatever yeast] from 2L to 3L and then next week they’re going from 3L to 4L, etc. I also realize that some people make 10 gallon batches, maybe 10 gallons of lager (okay, you would need more yeast for that) or 10 gallons of 1.080 beer. I get that. I am always making 5 gallon batches and they’re always 1.055ish or lower. I sometimes assume that if I don’t pitch enough yeast, my primary is going to be like a giant, sanitized starter and the yeast population will increase and off they’ll go on a metabolizing bonanza. Some might say that it’s during that time when off-flavors may occur but I just don’t see it.

I agree. Other than lagers (diacetyl) don’t see much impact from under pitching. That is unless I grossly under pitch on a 10 gal batch.

I’ve wondered about pitching rates for a bit now. I work in an Ethanol Plant and ferment 350,000+ gallon batches. I figured our pitch rate (dry pitched, no starter) at .12g/gallon. At that rate you would only need .60grams yeast for a 5 gallon batch (no not gonna recommend it).

Of course there are a few things different at the plant. Notably we don’t care about taste thus ferment at higher temps. And the addition of antibiotics.

So why the huge difference in pitch rates? Maybe to flood the wort with yeast cell before a foreign bacteria has a chance to invade?

[quote=“Thantos43”]I’ve wondered about pitching rates for a bit now. I work in an Ethanol Plant and ferment 350,000+ gallon batches. I figured our pitch rate (dry pitched, no starter) at .12g/gallon. At that rate you would only need .60grams yeast for a 5 gallon batch (no not gonna recommend it).

Of course there are a few things different at the plant. Notably we don’t care about taste thus ferment at higher temps. And the addition of antibiotics.

So why the huge difference in pitch rates? Maybe to flood the wort with yeast cell before a foreign bacteria has a chance to invade?[/quote]
Interesting. Okay, I promise to find the answer in the YEAST book and try to answer my own question.

Here’s another interesting one: On another board, someone got ahold of me because they thought I lived near them. Turns out the guy comes over to his brother’s house to brew and the brother lives one street over from me. I went over there one day when they said they were brewing and they are very new brewers. Great guys, all the equipment and they know what to do but they’re new brewers. At some point I see three Wyeast packs on a table in the garage (1056… he’s making a 5.5% porter) and I ask about them and he said, “I didn’t have time to make a starter so I’m just using more yeast” which is not necessarily a bad idea but he probably could have smacked one of those the day before and kept the other 2 for later. I assume he read somewhere (or someone told him) that he needed a boatload of yeast. The idea that you need a lot of yeast to properly ferment is taught early and often to new brewers.

Hi Ken, glad you’re back. I got on the bandwagon a while back when I wanted to improve my Belgians.
I read a back issue from BYO[Jan/Feb 2007] from Mike Heniff that talked about a combination of things
namely temp control, pitch rates, and pure oxy aeration. I started to make a series of Belgians in this manner to see, and I feel their was a significant improvement to my beers. I believe Jamil supports theses same things and I made a Blonde like he suggested in an article from May/June 2013. My effort proved[ to me] one of the best Blondes to date and I was really pleased. This is only for my Belgians! I don’t know if others have done similar projects and would welcome feed back. I have made several batches using different strains to see witch one I like best, but using the same process. I might blow-out my taste buds on Belgians, but as of right know I’m cruisin’ in the fast lane. Hope this makes
sence…B.C.

I read some parts of the yeast book on pitch rates and lag times. One thing that they mentioned was that when you work with yeast from a package or vial and it’s fresh, you’re dealing with just fresh, active yeast (and probably some nutrient) and that is going to get up and running nicely given the right conditions. When you work with slurry, a brewer typically pitches more… primarily because there IS more… but also because that yeast slurry also contains some amount of non-yeast content including dead yeast cells, break material and hop schputz. I’m not sure that I buy that as a reason why I can get by making a relatively small starter though. Another thing they mentioned is that when yeast go into the wort, they REALLY need oxygen. Many, many brewers I know use the “shake the primary” thing or maybe use a whisk or a connection on a drill to whip O2 into the solution. I have no doubt this would work but I have been on the pure O2 (from a canister) for a long, long time. I add some O2 to the starter and also about 60 seconds worth to the primary and I wonder if this is something that would make a big difference. Also, there was a sentence that came across (in the lag time section) as pitching a bit more yeast to make sure that nothing else muscles in on your yummy wort while your yeast is getting its act together. Finally, there were references to the drawbacks of both underpitching and overpitching. For years brewers told me that homebrewers cannot overpitch… it’s impossible. There are drawbacks to pitching too much yeast. Cheers gang.

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