Making A Yeast Starter

Why make a starter?

You can get good results from wine yeast by just sprinkling a newly opened packet directly onto your must. There are times, however, that you really ought to use a starter. Yeast become active and start reproducing much more quickly and reliably in a starter, so in difficult (for the yeast) situations, like trying to restart a stuck fermentation or if you doubt the viability of your yeast (because it’s been sitting on a shelf for years, for example, or you ordered it during a freak heatwave and it may have gotten cooked in a delivery truck somewhere), a starter is worth the effort. You may also want to make a starter if you need your yeast to dominate the must quickly. Maybe you don’t like to use sulfite or you had to leave your must sitting for longer than you expected before you could pitch your yeast.

Some people use starters routinely. This is probably unnecessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

How do you make a starter?

First, you should rehydrate your yeast according to the directions on the package.


Rehydrating Yeast


In the photo, I’ve sprinkled the yeast into a quarter cup (about 50 ml) of warm water and let it sit for five minutes. Coming out of dormancy is stressful, and a lot of yeast cells die. Warm water, with no additives like nutrient or sugar, is the least stressful way to do it and results in the largest population of live yeast.

While you’re waiting, dissolve a tablespoon of sugar (12 grams) and a pinch of nutrient in a cup 2.5 fluid ounces (75 ml) of water. Once your yeast is rehydrated, add it to the sugar water. You should see signs of activity in less than an hour.


After 30 minutes, bubbles appear on the surface of the yeast starter. They are predominantly in the center and cover about 25% of the surface.


In about four hours, it should be active and foamy and you can add it to your must.


The yeast starter is four hours old now and bubbles cover the surface.


You can let it continue for a up to a day, but there is probably no advantage in it. Any benefit from additional growth will be offset by having your must sit around with no yeast in it. If you do want to let the starter grow for a while, maybe because you made the starter before you prepared your must, then keep an eye on it every few hours and add sugar water, 1 tablespoon (12 g) sugar to each half cup (120 ml) if activity subsides. If you made the starter to restart a stuck fermentation, it’s better to add must to the starter, in a new fermenter, gradually.

Update 7/13/2010 – Changed the recommended sugar concentration

My original recipe for a starter was about 5% sugar, but I now use 10%. That’s about two tablespoons (24 g) of sugar to each cup (240 ml) of water. The yeast will have something to chew on either way, but 10% sugar is about halfway to the 20% or so common in wine musts. That makes it less of a drastic change. It means the starter might take a little longer, and can be left a little longer, before pitching.



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10 thoughts on “Making A Yeast Starter

  1. Mike

    When I brew beer, I use the beer wort to start the yeast. Why don’t you use the must or juice instead of table sugar. You might be getting some off flavors with the table sugar.
    I am getting ready to make a wine and found your article on the net. The wife is not a beer person so I thought I would make her a wine.

    Prost !
    Mike

  2. Erroll Post author

    Hi Mike,

    Must would be a great starter, but it isn’t always an option. If you’ve got a lot of fruit to process and you want to add a vigorous starter as soon as the must is ready then you need to make the starter with something else.

    Store bought juice (w/out preservatives) works great, but so does table sugar. Most people have it in the house already and it won’t cause off flavors. Table sugar is routinely used to chaptalize grape musts. In traditional country wines, which are made with 3-6 lb of fruit per gallon, table sugar can make up over half the fermentables.

    Good luck with the wine!

    Erroll

  3. John Hance

    I make starters only when I find it necessary, like when making watermelon (or any melon) wine because I need the fermentation to ensue as quickly as possible to prevent spoilage of the must.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with chaptalization in wine making. While my primary focus thus far as a winemaker has been country wines (i.e., non-grape wines), and chaptalization is fairly necessary in that field, other professional and commercial wine makers do it with unexpected frequency when a particular vintage falls short on natural sugars. I took this to be common knowledge, but given that my experience base is quite narrow, perhaps it really isn’t as common as I thought. Interesting.

    Erroll, good to see you getting back on your blog. Been kind of a slow spell of late. You were missed. Hope you and Marsha have settled into your new home well.

  4. Erroll Post author

    Thanks John,

    We’re still in transition, but I’ve started two new wines. It’s been a while and it feels good!

    Erroll

  5. petrus

    Hello,
    I am a beginner, If I want to make wine from honey, what I need as a fermentation?
    Where can I get wine yeast and nutritional yeast as a fermentation material?
    Thank you

  6. Erroll Post author

    Hi Fred,

    I’ve never had a packet of yeast that was dead right when I opened it, but I suppose it could happen. Try making a starter with it; you should see activity fairly soon. If you haven’t seen anything in a day, then it’s dead.

    Erroll

  7. Kingsx

    You concentrations are confusing and incorrect. You first start off, saying add 12 grams into 75ml of water. So that’s fine, and you say if you want to keep your starter longer, you can add more sugar water, in the concentration of 12 grams of sugar to 120ml of water.

    What really confuses the matter, is when you say you change the concentration from 5% to 10%, by stating to add 24 grams of sugar to 240ml of water. That is the same concentration of 12 grams to 120 ml of water = 10%. It never WAS 5%, and in fact, 12 grams in 75 ml of water is 16%, which is clearly higher than the original 5%.

    So my question to you is – should the recipe call for 12% sugar, or 10%? Or perhaps, you “meant” to say, change it to 20% sugar, by adding 48 grams of sugar to 240 ml of water? Thanks you.

  8. Erroll Post author

    Kingsx,

    Sorry for the confusion. In an older version of the post, I recommended a 5% sugar concentration. At the time, the article called for 12g sugar in 240 ml water – a 5% solution. Then I started using 10% and updated the post so that it reads 12g sugar in 120 ml water – that note at the bottom was for people who had read the older post and wondered why it had changed.

    So, in a nutshell:

    • Rehydrate the yeast in 50 ml water
    • Add 12g sugar and another 75 ml water (for approx 10% solution)
    • Add additional 12g sugar + 120 ml water if and when needed

    Erroll

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