THE BEER INGREDIENT THAT’S MORE IMPORTANT THAN HOPS
By Nick Hines
When considering the flavors in craft beer, it’s easy to be enamored by the hops. Hops are hyped, worshipped, and are even included in the names and label designs of many craft beers. But there’s another ingredient that you should pay attention to: yeast.

Without yeast, there would be no beer (or alcohol, for that matter). During the fermentation process, the microorganism eats sugar and creates alcohols and carbon dioxide as a by product. It’s a required ingredient just like sugar is a required ingredient. It’s also, however, an ingredient that affects flavor — just as much, if not more so, than hops.

VinePair caught up with Jason Oliver, the brewmaster at Devils Backbone in Virginia, to understand why you should care about your beer’s yeast as much as you care about your beer’s hops.

YEAST ADDS FRUIT FLAVORS TO YOUR BEER
“Without the yeast contribution, beer would be very boring and one dimensional,” Oliver says. The fruit flavors from esters are just one dimension you’d probably miss without yeast.

Unless fruit is actually added to beer during the brewing process (which seems to be happening more and more these days), fruit notes come from a reaction between acid and alcohol. The reaction produces a chemical compound called an ester. Ale yeast, called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is different from lager yeast, called Saccharomyces pastorianus. In terms of flavor, ale yeasts generally produce stronger fruit notes.

“A mild fruity ester might have hints of apple or pear, like in a lager, which is just barely perceivable compared to big esters that smell like banana or bubble gum that you’d find in a Belgian or hefeweizen,” Oliver says.

Strong banana flavors from Belgian yeast strains define Belgian-style beers. A yeast’s fruit notes can guide a brewer on the final tastes that will be highlighted in a beer in other styles as well, though. Oliver used a yeast strain for a lager that smelled like apple and pear, so he developed the entire beer around the esters from the yeast. The resulting Pear Lager is a crisp and evenly balanced fruity session beer.
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