Monday, July 27, 2009

How I made a yeast starter without malt extract

Usually when I make a yeast starter, I use dry malt extract (DME) - only because I believe it is the "standard method," and it has sort of become a habit. So I usually have a pound or two in the back of my fridge for that purpose. But if you've had a chance to read about my first attempt to brew with homemade malt, you already know that I had to basically ransack my fridge during that brew session, and all my available DME wound up in that beer (which miraculously came out excellent and I am drinking it right now).

In any case, today I wanted to get a starter going so that I can brew my Belgian Dubbel tomorrow, and suddenly realized I have no DME. So I decided to make a tiny little mash to produce a quart of wort for the starter. First I smacked my Wyeast pack to release the nutrient pack, which needs at least 3 hours to activate:

Then I opened up my ProMash software and created a small recipe. I immediately discovered that ProMash will not allow a recipe smaller than 1 gallon. So I kept the batch size at 1 gallon and adjusted the grain weight until I achieved a predicted 1.040 specific gravity, which came out to 1.44 pounds. Then I divided that by 4 and came up with 0.36 pounds - the amount of Belgian Pale Malt (my primary ingredient in this brew) necessary (at 75% efficiency) to make a tiny mash and produce a quart of wort.

Next I measured out 0.36 pound of grain and 1 quart of water, adding a little extra water for grain absorption and boil off. I also decided to use a couple chunks of Belgian candy sugar, since it is part of my recipe and I feel that it is always best for a yeast starter to consume the same sugar profile it will eventually be expected to devour and make beer out of:

Then I heated up the water to the mid 150's and dumped in my grains. The mixture stabilized at about 151 degrees:

I left it for an hour, goosing up the temp every 10-15 minutes by turning on the stove burner for a few seconds and stirring gently. Then I heated it up to 170 degrees for a 10 minute mash-out. I got out another pan, put my mesh strainer on top, and dumped the mash through it:

I then transferred the strainer back to the first pot and slowly drizzled the hot wort over the grains, performing this action 3 or 4 times back and forth between the two pots:

I eventually ended up with a pile of "spent" grains, and some nice looking wort:

I brought the tiny wort to a boil. Here's its miniature-sized hot-break:

Then I added the chunks of dark Belgian candy sugar:

I boiled for about 10-15 minutes, then dumped it into my sanitized 1 gallon fermentor that I use for starters (no I don't have a cool flask and stir-plate):

I chilled the wort in an ice bath:

And finally, I aerated vigorously, and then pitched my yeast:

And that's it! It's just like a regular mash, just super-tiny! It's the first time I've ever tried doing it that way, but it appears to have turned out very nicely - I guess we'll find out for sure tomorrow morning. See you then!


  1. I'm glad I found this. I was in a panic tonight because I had no DME and the store was closed and I HAD to get a starter going. I hope it worked out for you because I'm giving it a shot as we speak. Sounds simple enough, so we'll see!

  2. Hey Chris -

    Yeah, this process worked out great for me and I've used it again since then. Now, instead of just transferring the tiny wort back and forth, I also rinse the grains with some 170 degree water to get better extraction. It's annoying to go through this whole process, but at it will save your brew day if you suddenly realize you don't have any DME.

    Good luck!

  3. Thanks Jon,

    That makes a lot of sense to sparge the grain. I didn't think of that, but the process seemed to work flawlessly. MY starter got cranking pretty good and once I pitched, it was only a matter of hours until it was fermenting! Thanks again for the great idea!

    I did a short write-up on using this method ( as well as brewing the beer (, if you want to check it out!

  4. You forgot to mention the glass breaks when filled with hot wort and dipped into an ice bath.

  5. Hey gazedo, that's a great point! As you can see, I didn't break any glass, but it's definitely a risk that I shouldn't encourage others to take. Better off chilling the wort in the pot and then transferring it into the sanitized glass container.

    Thanks so much for the comment!