A worthy distillate can only be obtained from good mash, and good mash requires the right yeast. Which yeast to choose from the numerous options, how they differ from each other, and how to use them correctly?
Fermentation and Types of Yeast Fermentation, or brewing, is a biological process in which yeast converts sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose into cellular energy, producing alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide as byproducts.
Without yeast, it's impossible to make any known alcoholic beverage. Through distillation of fruit, grain, or sugar mash, which are also products of fermentation, strong alcoholic drinks such as vodka, whiskey, brandy, calvados, rum, etc., are obtained.
Wild Yeast Natural
yeast found on the skins of fruits and berries (grapes, plums, cherries, etc.) or on plant leaves. Wild yeast is an excellent option for making homemade wines. For wine fermentation, sweet berries are usually chosen (e.g., grapes). Sour fruits can also be used, but additional sugar will be needed.
Wild yeast should be used cautiously. It is the most unpredictable type: it is never certain whether they will ferment correctly or even ferment to completion. Today, despite the abundance of cultured yeast, wild yeast remains popular among winemakers.
Baker's Yeast Pressed yeast, typically used for making baked yeast bread and various pastries as a leavening agent. This type of yeast is also used by distillers to ferment mash from sugar and other raw materials, but the quality of the resulting drink often leaves much to be desired, as does the alcohol yield.
When used for mash, it produces very poor results: firstly, the quality of the moonshine suffers, and an unpleasant taste and odor are guaranteed. Secondly, there is a low product yield since fermentation stops when the alcohol content reaches 10–12°, and baker's yeast die and settle.
Beer Yeast Dry yeast, preferable for distillation compared to the previous type. Moreover, they are a serious competitor to pressed yeast. Beer yeast is used for brewing beer and for preparing mash for whiskey and other grain mashes. Often, these are the same baker's yeast but with more suitable strains that ensure slow fermentation and higher alcohol yield.
In practice, beer yeast, when it comes to distillation, allows for the production of good mash for whiskey but with a noticeable loss of alcohol.
Used for producing alcoholic beverages from fruit and berry juices, mainly various strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, occasionally in combination with yeast nutrients. Wine yeast provides a higher alcohol yield than baker's yeast, has high resistance to sulfur dioxide (a byproduct of fermentation), works well in a sufficiently acidic environment, and positively influences the organoleptic characteristics of the drink (a combination of taste and aromatic qualities). In distillation, they are applied to produce sugar and fruit-berry distillates (brandy, calvados, grappa, etc.).
Spirit and Turbo Yeasts
A ready-made mixture of dry yeast and nutrients designed for more efficient fermentation of mash before further distillation. These mixtures use the strongest yeast strains, which have high alcohol tolerance, ensuring fast and stable fermentation. Under certain conditions, they provide better organoleptic characteristics compared to regular baker's yeast. The nutrients in turbo yeast help maintain the optimal levels of nitrogen, vitamins, and trace elements needed by yeast at different stages of alcohol fermentation, contributing to the creation of ideal conditions for obtaining beverages with good taste and aroma.
In addition to yeast and nutrients, spirit yeasts for moonshine often include a pH regulator and an antifoaming agent. The antifoaming agent is indispensable for quick and intensive fermentation, which is usually accompanied by abundant foam formation.
There are also specialized spirit yeasts created for obtaining specific types of beverages, especially from grain and fruit mashes. They are known as yeast for whiskey, calvados, vodka, etc. The composition of such turbo yeasts is designed to ensure stable fermentation of a particular type of mash and preserve the original organoleptic characteristics of the raw material.
Advantages of Spirit Yeasts
Shorter Fermentation Time: The average duration of complete fermentation for baker's yeast, beer yeast, and wine yeast ranges from 7 to 60 days or more (in practice, only baker's yeast can provide a one-week fermentation period for sugar mash; grain and fruit mashes typically ferment for a longer period). Spirit yeasts, under specific conditions, allow the production of mash for distillation in as little as 48 hours (there are turbo yeasts that claim to achieve this in an incredible 24 hours), often within 3-7 days.
Increased Alcohol Tolerance: When a certain level of alcohol is reached in the mash, yeast cells die due to the toxicity of ethanol. For baker's and beer yeasts, this is around 12-14% alcohol, and for wine yeast, it's about 15%. Strains of spirit yeast can withstand alcohol levels up to 20% in the mash (as of today, the maximum is around 23%). Distillers can influence the final strength of the mash by regulating the amount of yeast, sugars, and temperature.
High Sugar Fermentation Capability: Yeasts cannot consume certain sugars, such as dextrins found in molasses and starch-containing raw materials. In beer, residual sugars are always present, affecting its density and taste. Spirit yeasts often include enzymes that break down unfermentable sugars, thereby ensuring a higher alcohol yield. Alcohol tolerance also contributes to a greater product yield.
Acceptable Organoleptic Characteristics and "Purity" of the Beverage: Experienced distillers often criticize spirit yeasts, claiming that fast fermentation completely "kills" the taste and aroma of the beverage, and the nutrients remain underutilized, negatively affecting organoleptic qualities. While there is some truth to this, in recent years, producers of spirit yeasts have made significant advancements, and the composition of turbo yeasts, especially specialized ones, is gradually approaching an ideal. Moreover, today, distillers can actively influence the quality of their product obtained using spirit yeasts by adjusting yeast concentration for more restrained fermentation, maintaining the right temperature, pH of the mash, and other parameters.