By Dave Broom

The Question of Yeast

Dave asks why not experiment with yeast strains?
What's new? Glad you asked.

I've been mulling things over, or to be more precise there's been thoughts fermenting in the brain. It started with the usual problem of being a typically impatient hack always wanting something new - while at the same time knowing that as whisky is a long-term world, that this AD-style restlessness won't ever be satisfied fully. Patience is needed.

The same is true of my latest attempt to get a sourdough starter up and running. It seems easy, the books always make things seem simple, but the reality is different. The first time it went mouldy, the second time I killed it either through over-excitement or laziness. It's hard to tell.

This time however (crosses fingers) everything seems more stable, or as stable as fermentation gets which when you see it written down isn't stable at all. I don't want stability, I want activity, I demand change from this gloop of flour, water and whatever floats into my office from the garden. But that requires patience and time. It's like whisky. The starter will be ready when its ready.

Why bother? Glad you asked. Because there is something marvellous in seeing life being created in front of you. Yes, I could just go and buy a loaf, or use dried yeast and the breadmaker, but that seems like cheating. Don't get me wrong. The dried yeast makes a good enough loaf, but it's a standard loaf, a homogenous loaf. My bread, no matter how bad it eventually turns out (and I'm under no illusion as to its quality or appearance) will be mine, its flavours will have been created right here, it will be special to this place, it will have personality.

It's the smell which gets me, the same tang which you get in the tun room of a brewery or a distillery, an ancient smell which triggers a response in the deep mind. It's a smell which has been with mankind for millennia, which gave us bread and beer and whisky.

It's not too far-fetched to suppose that sourdough starters would have been used by the earliest whisky makers. Anything femneted with wild yeast is difficult, but the ones who perfected the technique would have made a whisky with their personality stamped on it. The same happened when distillers began getting their yeast from local brewers. Each one would be different and that difference would impact on the whisky.

Then the breweries began using different yeasts and gave them to the local distillers which helped to create specific flavours in each whisky. Then the breweries closed and distillers began using a strain which gave great yield and wasn't flaky or weird. With this came consistency, where the yeast acted as a canvas onto which each distillery's character could be shown.

That's a fair argument for its use ... and yet. With Scotch we have an industry where there is little flex within the regulations, meaning if new flavours are desired there are few places where they can be created. Wood is an obvious one, but so is fermentation, which brings us back to yeast. Other whisky nations use different yeasts, look at Japan and Kentucky. Yeast, they say, gives flavour.

So, why doesn't Scotch experiment? We go back to the same argument of the blank canvas, of yeast being there for conversion and not specific flavour creation. Using a different yeast this counter-argument goes, would see a shift in a carefully crafted and fixed character (even though I'm now wondering whether the wild yeasts specific to each site might have a part to play in that site-specific flavour).

Although some distillers are looking at yeast, that attitude will prevail in the majority of Scotland's distilleries. I can accept that, but surely the situation is different with new smaller scale plants most of whom have an ethos of going back to the future and are recreating old farm distilleries, with small-scale production. They have the flexibility to do different and interesting things. In fact they have to do this, they ain't going to be the Glenfiddichs of the future. If they really believe in difference then surely yeast is an option? If we are indeed seeing a new world opening up, it would seem daft not to. After all, if I can create life in a Tupperware tub then think what someone with skill could do in a distillery.