Washing yeast makes sense to most homebrewers. Yeast is one of the most important ingredients in your beer, and sometimes one of the most expensive.
If you must purchase a new packet or vial of yeast for each beer you make it gets expensive. One way to reduce costs is to reuse your yeast.
If you don’t have a lot of trub in your fermenter, you can pitch another wort on top of the yeast cake immediately after transferring to secondary or to a keg. For some this is not a problem because they don’t notice any off flavors from reusing the yeast.
For others there is just too much “gunk” in there and they don’t know exactly how it will impact the flavor of their next batch. Maybe you are brewing for a competition, or rebrewing for the finals of the National Homebrew Competition…For them, washing yeast makes sense.
Harvesting and Washing Yeast from a Conical Fermenter
There will always be some trub in the bottom of every fermentation. If you use a
conical fermenter, trub removal is easy.
Layers of Yeast Defined:
Open the bottom valve and drain off the trub before the yeast begins to flocculate. The bottom portion of the flocculated yeast should be discarded also since it contains a high percentage of yeast which flocculates fast and attenuates little.
The middle layer of yeast is what you want to harvest. It should be creamy in color and texture with no trub. It should have no off odors and have no off tastes (yes, some people do taste yeast).
Discard the top layer of yeast because the yeast in this area flocculate the least. You want to harvest the “average” yeast in the middle. Your “average” yeast will give consistent reliable results that can be predicted.
If you harvest the top or bottom extremes and propagate these you have changed the properties if your yeast. It will be difficult to predict what it may do.
Harvesting Yeast From the Bottom of Your Primary
The principles of harvesting yeast from a conical also apply to harvesting from the bottom of your primary.
We still want the “average” yeast. Since we will harvest from the primary fermenter instead of the secondary, we are favoring the most flocculant yeast.
You won’t be able to be as precise as with the conical, but you should be able to get the yeast you want. As mentioned before, there will be a lot of trub in the bottom of the primary.
This will consist of hot and cold break material that made it into the fermenter. We use the techniques of washing yeast to harvest the cleanest yeast we can.
The way homebrewers wash yeast should not to be confused with what the commercial breweries do when they “wash” their yeast. They lower the pH to just above 2.5 which kills off most of the unwanted bacteria. But, since wild yeast is still yeast, you can’t remove them by washing.
For the average homebrewer, it is just simpler to buy another packet of yeast than to take the chance of damaging your yeast by altering the pH using acids.
Yeast Washing Procedure:
For the rest of us, washing yeast involves adding sterilized water into a slurry of yeast and trub, chilling the slurry, separating the yeast from the trub, and repeating if necessary. This is one of those times when you must be very careful with your sanitization.
The items you will need for washing yeast are:
- two sterilized mason jars (wide mouth is best)
- two quarts of boiled and cooled, or distilled water
- two rubber bands
- aluminum foil or plastic wrap
The steps involved in washing yeast are as follows:
- Immediately after racking beer off yeast, add a pint of sterile water to bottom of fermenter and swirl to loosen and suspend the yeast.
To get sterilized water, first sanitize your quart or pint jars and lids (just like in canning, you can boil the jars and lids in a separate container while the sterile water is boiling). Boil the water you plan to use for 15 minutes. Add the water to the jar, leaving about 1/2″. Quickly put on the lid and screw on the top. Let this cool before using to wash your yeast (duhh).
- Wait a minute or two to allow the heaviest trub to settle. Then pour the mixture off the trub (this is harder than it sounds) and into one of your sterilized mason jars.
- Cover the jar with foil or cling wrap, put a rubber band on, put it in the refrigerator, and wait for it to settle out. It may take 30 minutes to an hour.
- You should see three layers. Suspended yeast will be on top (along with any beer that was left in the trub), a fine layer of yeast below that, and trub on the bottom. Pour the beer off if needed, then pour the liquid with the suspended yeast into the second mason jar, discard the trub and clean and sanitize the first jar with StarSan or Iodophor.
- Cover the second mason jar and put it into the fridge to settle.
- If you notice a lot of trub in the bottom of the second jar, repeat the process above. You should be left with several inches of clean and creamy yeast.
- When you are happy with your washed yeast, make sure it’s covered well and store it in the fridge. Ideally you would store it at 33-34° F. It is “supposed” to last a couple of months, but I would use it as quickly as possible.
- When you are ready to use the yeast, you can stir the yeast back in to suspension and pitch it into an appropriately sized starter the day before you plan to brew.
- An alternate way of washing yeast is given by Randy Mosher in The Brewer’s Companion. He recommends that you let the yeast settle completely. The top layer will be clear water. Pour off the clear water before starting.
He says that the trub and dead yeast will either float to the top or sink to the bottom. Mr. Mosher, therefore, recommends you harvest only the middle portion which should be good clean yeast. Skim the top layer off (with a sanitized spoon), harvest the clean yeast, and discard the trub on the bottom. You might try both ways and see which works best for you.
It will take you a few times of washing yeast to get the process down.
But eventually you will figure out what works best for you.
Make an Extra Starter With the Original Yeast
Another idea I’ve heard is to use a portion of the original packet or vial and pitch an extra starter. Store it in a sterilized jar, covered, in your fridge for a couple of months. I’d step it up prior to using it with another starter. The advantage of this is that you can continue making
an extra starter each time you brew. As long as you can manage to keep the yeast viable until you need it again, you’ll be perpetuating the original generation of yeast indefinitely. Of course, your mileage may vary