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April 29, 2013

The Best Yeast for Distilling and Brewing

Distillers and Brewers Yeast Review

We get a lot of questions about yeast. Folks want to know "which yeasts are the best" for fermenting a mash.

These days, homebrew shops offer an incredibly robust selection of yeasts. However, not everyone has easy access to a homebrew shop, and ordering yeast online can be dicey because temperature fluctuations may cause damage. Therefore, this article focuses on very basic yeasts which everyone should have access to, plus a few more that are temp tolerant. We've tested a total of 4 yeasts and the results are below.

Before we get started, a reminder: Distilling alcohol is illegal without a federal fuel alcohol or distilled spirit plant permit as well as relevant state permits. Our distillation equipment is designed for legal uses only and the information in this article is for educational purposes only. Please read our complete legal summary for more information on the legalities of distillation.

To make things easy, we made a 2 gallon mash using 3 pounds of pure cane sugar and 2 pints of unsulfured molasses (with a potential alcohol of 12.9%). We then split the mash into 4 glass carboy's and added a different yeast to each container.

One of the following yeast strains was pitched in each of the carboys:

  • bread yeast
  • champagne yeast
  • super start distillers yeast
  • turbo yeast

We let the batches ferment for almost 3 weeks (to make sure we had maxed out the potential of each yeast), then we conducted a taste test. We didn't carbonate or distill or otherwise modify the fermented liquids. We just taste tested as is. First, these wouldn't make for very good beers. Second, we could have distilled them, as this is more or less a rum mash recipe, but we only have a fuel alcohol permit, so we couldn't have drank the final product anyway. Remember, distilling alcohol at home for consumption is illegal. Don't do it.

Our assumption was that the bread yeast had not met its alcohol potential and would be sweeter than the rest of the samples due to excess sugar. We also assumed that the turbo yeast might taste and smell a bit funky, because that's what a lot of people report about it. We also have some experience with turbo's ourselves and have noted these characteristics. We thought the champagne yeast would be dry, and weren't sure how the super start would taste among the rest of the samples. We hadn't taken a final specific gravity reading before the taste test, so the alcohol content of the samples was not known to us as we were sampling them.

As it turns out, our assumptions were dead on, with one surprising exception. Here's what we noted:

Turbo Yeast

We tested Liquor Quick's Turbo Pure X-Press (dehydrated), which is rated to produce up to 18% alcohol. According to the manufacturer, this yeast was created to produce "a very clean wash with minimal congeners." We disagree with the first part of that statement.

The wash was anything but clean. It smelled and tasted absolutely awful, most likely due to excess nutrients that weren't used by the yeast. In defense of Liquor Quick, perhaps if we had added more sugar and the yeast were able to work longer (using more of the nutrients) the wash would not have tasted so bad.

We actually agree with the second part of the above mentioned statement. The wash contained very few congeners. Congeners is a fancy term for all of the tasty ingredients found in the mash. The more congeners, the more mash flavor, the less congeners, the more devoid of taste the wash and final product will have. There was hardly any trace of the cane and molasses flavors. However, remnants of the nutrients were still very present and the wash tasted and smelled terrible.

In summary, we only recommend turbo yeast for making fuel for lawnmowers.

Champagne Yeast

We tested Red Star's Pasteur Champagne Yeast (dehydrated). The champagne wash sample was extremely dry. Molasses and cane flavors from the wash were almost completely gone. A very slight bitter taste from the molasses was all that remained, which is definitely not the best part of the molasses flavor. The yeast itself also imparted little to no flavor to the wash, making this sample extremely clean. If a commercial distiller is striving to make a neutral grain spirit, such as vodka, we think champagne yeast would work very well. However, it is now apparent to us that a commercial distiller would probably not use this yeast for flavorful spirits such as corn whiskey, full bodied, authentic rums, etc..

Super Start Distillers Yeast

We tested Crosby & Baker's Super Start Distillers Yeast, now known simply as Distillers Yeast (UPC: CB 9904A*). This stuff is available by the pound and is given no description by the maker. Over the years this is the yeast we've become accustomed to using, partly because it's sold by the pound (and It takes a long time to use an entire pound of yeast) and partly because we experienced what we felt were good results. Our assumption was that this yeast was going to blow the competition away. However, we were wrong.

The Super Start wash tasted almost exactly like the champagne yeast wash. They were actually a bit difficult to tell apart. The only difference was that the champagne yeast had a slightly cleaner taste and smell. Yeasty smells and flavors were a bit more prevalent in the SS sample. In our opinion, because these samples didn't taste anything like cane or molasses, these yeasts are probably better suited for commercial distillers making high alcohol, neutral grain spirits than they are for making sippin' whiskeys. Because the champagne yeast had a cleaner taste than the Super Start, we'd venture to say that it'd be the better choice between the two.

Accordingly, due to the results of this experiment, we now no longer exclusively recommend Super Start as our yeast of choice. 

Bread Yeast

The surprise of the day was bread yest. We tested Fleischmann's Active Dry Yeast. Our initial assumption was correct: the bread yeast tasted slightly sweeter than the others. Much more of the cane sugar and molasses flavors were present. Overall, this was actually the best tasting wash, which we kind of half expected. We assumed that the bread yeast sample tasted better because the yeast had hardly done anything and hadn't produced much alcohol. However, we were dead wrong.

The ABV of this sample was on par with the rest of the samples (see below). This means that bread yeast had managed to produce as much alcohol as the rest of the yeasts, but had done so without stripping out as much of the natural mash flavors. This wash tasted great and we see no reason to recommend against using bread yeast. 

Alcohol Yield 

We determined potential alcohol using a beer hydrometer. We also did some calculations by hand to back up hydrometer readings (and to prove how smart we are). Also, our brix refractometer was missing on test day, which is the other reason for the hand calculations.

Our beer hydrometer displayed a starting gravity of 1.10, corresponding to a potential alcohol of 13%. Between the molasses and the cane sugar, we ended up adding a total of 969 grams of sugar to a total of 3785 grams of water, for a brix of 25.6 and a potential alcohol of 12.8%. Because the result of both calculations is so close we're very confident that the potential alcohol was somewhere around 12.9%.

The final gravity measurements of wash samples were almost identical. The samples were all within a half percent of 12.5% starting alcohol, with champagne being slightly higher than the rest. In other words, each yeast essentially maxed out its alcohol production potential by eating more or less all of the sugar present in the wash.

These results convey absolutely nothing meaningful about the alcohol production potential of champagne, turbo yeast, and Super Start yeast. It's obvious that these yeasts should be able to produce 12.5% ABV or higher. If we wanted to compare the alcohol yield potential of these yeasts we'd need to bump up the sugar content of the wash and give the yeast samples more to work with.

However, the experiment sheds some interesting light on the alcohol production potential of bread yest. We assumed that bread yeast would have stalled out well before consuming all of the sugar in the mash. We can now say with confidence that bread yeast (at least the brand we used) is able to produce 12.5% starting ABV, and maybe even higher. This is surprising news to us, as our previous (limited) experience with bread yeast suggested a much lower potential ABV.

Additional Yeast Resources

For those that have not read our article "Making Moonshine - Fermentation and Yeast" check that out as we go into more detail about the fermentation process. It's for educational purposes only, but is very interesting. We strongly suggest purchasing a copy of the book "Yeast" from Amazon.com. This books is 300 pages long and was written by professional brewers and scientists. It's an awesome resource on the topic of yeast. We've been reading this book and have learned a ton of stuff about yeast. Yeast is just as important as the other ingredients (corn, barley, sugar) in beer and fine spirits, and without yeast, the world as we know it would likely be devoid of alcohol.

Get this book to learn how a commercial distiller would improve the quality of their whiskey. Also, checkout our article "Bourbon, Whiskey, Vodka and Moonshine - How Much Yeast?" for more information on how much yeast to use on a batch of mash. 

Clawhammer Supply is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

 

 

  • Id be interested to know if you could mix yeasts without them destroying each other or something to create a mix that gives you the best of all worlds, so far I see its always one type or another never a combined tag team, maybe its because its not possible? or no one has considered it ?

    Posted by scott on August 19, 2017
  • Great info thanks

    Ok since we are asking questions:
    If a bullet training is going at 300 mile per hour and you throw a ball from the train side ways, will it go further sideways or in aforward directing?

    Posted by peter on June 12, 2017
  • I have been making brows for well over 5 years and my favorite yeast is actually the bread yeast, I have gone with flavour over alcohol content and Im pretty sure I havent made a dud batch for a long time.

    Posted by Aussie Mick on March 28, 2017
  • good read ,i would be interested to see a comparison with the turbo yeast were the manufactures instructions were followed

    Posted by Rory on December 12, 2016
  • Good article for the most part (im not here to judge).

    I’ve found over the past few dozen washes if run out that one way to get both good flavor and a higher. Abv is to mix your yeast strains – use a turbo (high abv) and bread (flavor). Many of my runs have come out in the upper teens to twenties, and the flavor is most definitely more present.

    My $0.02

    Posted by T-reks on November 26, 2016
  • Fleischmann’s active dry yeast wont produce as much alcohol as champagne or the others, but it produces a nice n’ sweet flavor with much of the grain flavor brought through. I get between 8%-12% ABV after ferment with the bakers yeast which isn’t much.

    If you want more end-product with higher concentrations of alcohol in your pint jars for later dilution stick with Champagne and/or specialty yeasts.

    Posted by Clay on October 26, 2016
  • I want to make brandy. Which yeast would be best to use to make the wine to distill into brandy?

    Posted by Dea on September 23, 2016
  • Appreciate your efforts…how much bread yeast would you suggest for a 5 gallon spirit wash..kind regards Alan

    Posted by alan on July 07, 2016
  • Could you give me a name for yeast ,to make moonshine Thank you

    Posted by Reg Lauzon on December 31, 2015
  • Replicated this and got completely different results. Bread yeast and champagne yeast took forever. Minimum 12 weeks. Had to add turbo yeast to finish it and it was done in a week. turns out that’s a good way to get the extra nutrients out; let the champagne yeast work on it another week after the turbo finishes.

    Posted by pete conklin on November 29, 2015
  • I appreciate both your science and humor. Thanks and I look forward to your next experiment.

    Posted by Designer-r on October 23, 2015
  • I am experimenting with a Brue My Uncle clide told me about during the second world war on the Pacific Islands using coconuts and Lime Juice, Sugar and Hot sand / Plugging up the hole and when it was ready the Plugs would start to pop ! --so far so good !

    Posted by marvin almond on October 22, 2015
  • “My comment is….K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid!”

    You’re a producer, now, and you can leave the consumer mindset at the door. You cannot do this well without bothering to understand how it works. You need a clear mental image of what’s going on. This isn’t just a consumer trick to get low priced hooch. It’s a craft and if you want to learn it you need to try and forget for a moment that you live in a society that is bone-deep anti-intellectual.

    THis is a science as well as a craft and progress happens via collegiality, replication and debate. You profoundly misunderstand knowledge commerce if you think that is bickering. You might want to drop your cutely saw, too. To an educated or thinking person the statement simply announces, “I’m arrogant enough to think i can do what you do without putting in the hard yards, so shaddap and give me what I want”.

    Few will tell you this. I, however, once fired a guy on the first day of work for saying that. No doubt you also say, “That’s just semantics” in response to debate about language. Ditto, all the same points.

    BTW, could the people citing yields tell us something about what they were fermenting, i.e., the original gravity? Thanks for that. This is a great discussion.

    Posted by Kafaraqgatri on October 08, 2015
  • Being a home brewer, I am particularly fond of English ale yeasts, because of all the fruity esters they produce. I use Safale s-04. Since that type of yeast has a low attenuation, Champagne yeast is also added to finish the mash to a high percentage. The combination of these two yeasts makes for a flavorful rum.

    Posted by Mark on September 28, 2015
  • I have been using bread yeast since I started mashing in and have great success with it. Tried champagne yeast once and gave away the end product because of the taste. ( it was to mean ) the bread yeast left a smooth and flavorful finish. As far as quantity I get just under 4 liters of 155 proof from 5 gal of mash. I’m happy with that.

    Posted by tjcools on September 01, 2015
  • After using a combo of distillers yeast and 48 hr turbo yeast with varied results I tried the bread yeast. Wow what a difference. The yeild was less but the product amazing. .. thanks clawhammer

    Posted by Lightninlance on July 07, 2015
  • I want to start producing some RUm and will like to know the best yeast for the production.Thank you

    Posted by Bright on June 28, 2015
  • I want to start producing some RUm and will like to know the best yeast for the production.Thank you

    Posted by Bright on June 28, 2015
  • Thank you. I looked for an answer and found it. I guess I need to be a more patient home brewer if I want the better tasting results.

    Posted by john on April 24, 2015
  • This comment is for Dude C, your 3 packs of yeast per 5 gallon wash is 2 packs too many. Use proper yeast nutrient and one pack will ferment just as well as 3 if not better. My next comment is for Clawhammer, try Fermentis High Spirit American Whiskey Yeast. This is the best yeast for full bodied whiskeys.

    Posted by Mr Distiller on April 23, 2015


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