Monthly Archives: March 2013

Winter Harvet Saison

The Story

winter-hay-bales-keith-burgessDespite brewing for over 2 years, we have not experimented much with yeast. We’ve stuck pretty close to yeast that produces English and American style ales. Nottingham dry yeast has been a mainstay in our brewery, while occasionally using liquid yeast such as Wyeast American Ale and Wyeast Irish Ale.

We wanted to experiment with Wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast, so we decided to make a saison (a so-called farmhouse ale because many farmers in Belgium would brew this beer to quench the thirst of the people working on their land). But to better identify the differences between Wyeast French Saison yeast and Nottingham yeast, we made a 34 litre (9 gallon) batch of beer, and fermented half of it with the Wyeast French Saison, the other half with the Nottingham yeast. We expect dramatic differences. Saisons typically have spicy, peppery and citrus taste, which is caused by the yeast. On the other hand, Nottingham yeast ferments very clean, meaning you cannot really taste any flavours from the yeast; this allows the flavours from the malt and hops be more noticeable.

The Tasting

French Saison Yeast

Appearance: Quite clear. Very strong head. Carmely colour.
Aroma: Lemony and tart, with a little bit of pepper.
Taste: Has a tart flavour followed by a lot of citrus and herby favour. Hints of oak and heavy biscuit body. Light hints of carmel and honey sweetness.
Overall: Very good beer. Has a nice tart flavour that makes it refreshing for spring. Since this was our first saison, we were most likely overcome by how different this beer is. Thus we probably did not notice all the smaller flaws. However, we did drink a Driftwood Farmhand Saison to compare with our saison. Our saison was most was considerably more flavourful, with flavours of lemon, oak, pepper, honey. Diftwood’s saison was mainly just peppery and bitter. Likely this is due to using different type of saison yeast. Our saison isn’t necessarily better, it just has more flavours. That being said, we really like this beer.

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 9.06.06 PM

(Nottingham ale on the left, Saison on the right)

Nottingham Ale Yeast

Appearance: Slightly more hazy than the saison. Oaky colour. Very strong head as well.
Aroma: Slightly hoppier than the saison, with an earthy aroma. Yet also very malty
Taste: Initially quite a bland flavour, yet when swallowed more of the hop and malt flavour comes through. It is almost like a dark beer, with a light colour. It is very heavy and rich with a strong sweet flavour.
Overall: A heavier beer than the saison, as the Nottingham yeast did not eat nearly as much sugar as the saison yeast. It is an ok beer, but it seems very boring next to the saison. The flavours are limited to malty, sweet and light hops. It an interesting comparison to the French Saison yeast, because it shows much of a difference yeast makes in a beer. Furthermore, the French Saison yeast produced a beer that seems best for spring and summer because of its refreshing qualities, while the Nottingham yeast produced a heavier beer that is best suited for fall and winter because of its heavy, malty qualities.

The Process

Specifics: 34 litre batch, 87% extraction efficiency, French Saison Yeast ABV 6.6% Nottingham Ale Yeast ABV 6%, O.G. 1.054, IBU 25, single infusion mash at 66 Celsius for 60 minutes

Grain Bill
We had really no idea what to put in a saison, as we had never made one (to please feel free to leave comments about what grains you like to put in your saison). However, we did want to avoid carmel malts. Our reason was we didn’t want toffee and carmel flavours in our saison; we wanted to yeast to shine. Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice, but we wanted to start fairly basic with our saison.

Gambrinus Pale Malt: 10.5 lb (We have no Pilsen malt, as that seemed to be the suggested base malt for saisons)
Gambrinus Munich Light: 2.25 lb (This only made up 14% of grain bill, as we wanted a little malty characteristic balance the beer. We’ve generally found the beers without a little Munich Light boring)
Gambrinus Wheat Malt: 1.5 lb (It seemed most saison recipes had some wheat in them, so we threw some in just for good measure)
Flaked Barley: 12 oz (We added flaked barley to everything to increase body and head. Saison’s apparently are supposed to be quite light in body, but that didn’t stop us!)
Belgian Biscuit: 12 oz (We’ve never used it before. Plus there was ‘Belgian’ right in the title. We had to use it)
Gambrinus Honey Malt: 6 oz (Honey malt is pure love. It must be added to everything)


(Robert and our brewing compadre, Oliver, grinding grain. When the grain bill gets too large, the drill comes out, because our arms are too weak to grind the grain by hand.)

Hop Schedule
Our incredibly brief and remarkably un-thorough internet research told us that English hops and Saaz were the preferred hops for a saison.

60 minutes: 1.8 oz Willamette (Our Willamette has an AA% of 7.8%, so they worked as bitter hops. Willamette hops are not really English hops, but they were the closest thing we had)
15 minutes: 0.75 oz Saaz (We wanted a little flavour from the Saaz, though 15 minutes is arguably too long to boil Saaz)
2 minutes: 0.75 oz Saaz (We wanted a little spicy/floral Saaz aroma)

IMG_20130112_153134We put 17 litres of the wort into each fermenter. In one the fermenter, we pitched the Nottingham Ale Yeast. In the other fermenter, we pitched Wyeast French Saison Yeast. We did not ferment them at the same temperature (as the saison yeast likes it hot, between 18-25 Celsius).

Nottingham Batch
Primary fermentation: 16 days.
Fermented at 17 Celcius

French Saison Batch
Primary fermentation: 15 days.
Fermented at 20 Celcius (apparently this is a bit cold for the yeast, but it was as warm as we could get the house in the winter without spending tonnes of money on a heating bill)


(Just before bottling: Saison batch on the left, Nottingham batch on the right. The saison batch is actually slightly clearer)


Pitching on a Yeast Cake

Yeast can be expensive. Liquid yeast from Wyeast and White Labs costs between $6 – $20 (depending on your location). As frugal people, we like to reuse our yeast. There are two ways to do this: pitching on the yeast cake or yeast washing. We often prefer pitching on the yeast cake. The yeast cake is all the gunk that is left at the bottom of your primary fermenter. Don’t throw that yeast out; it can be reused.

How to Pitch on a Yeast Cake

The beauty of pitching on a yeast cake is it’s simplicity.

Step 1: Remove (rack) beer from the primary fermenter
Maybe you are bottling the beer, maybe you are transferring it to a secondary. It doesn’t matter. Just remove the beer. Ensure that nothing unsanitized touches the beer, the inside of the fermenter or the yeast cake.  Once the beer is out the primary, the yeast cake is exposed. Put the lid/airlock back into the primary fermenter to seal it. Try to make sure the yeast cake is exposed to the open air as little as possible. This reduces the chance of infection.

primarybeer(A French Witbier waiting to be racked out of the fermenter for bottling)

Optional Step: Remove the remaining the beer
If there is beer still remaining in your fermenter, you can dump it out.

yeastcake(Yeast cake at the bottom of the primary fermenter. Don’t take pictures of your yeast cake; you have more important things to do)

Step 2: Add new beer to the fermenter
Just pour/siphon the new beer onto the yeast cake. The yeast in the yeast cake should be more than happy to start fermenting another beer (unless you’ve abused the yeast in some way, then the yeast will get back at you by making your beer taste awful)

Note: The more air and foreign material the yeast cake is exposed to, the greater the risk of infection. This does not mean an infection is bound to happen, but be aware there is a risk.


  • Save money
    • You can use one yeast packet to ferment multiple beers, saving you the cost of buying new yeast.
  • No need for a starter
    • There is a very high yeast cell count in a yeast cake, which allows it to ferment nearly any beer without stressing the yeast. We often put our high gravity beers (Original Gravity higher than 1.070) on yeast cakes.
  • Less esters/fusels
    • This is related to the previous comment. Since the yeast cell count is so high, the yeast does not have to reproduce as much, producing less yeasty flavours that may be undesirable depending on beer style
  • Simpler than yeast washing
    • Yeast washing is another technique for reusing yeast. It requires you to remove the dead yeast cells from the living yeast cells. It is a very useful techinque. However, it is more time consuming and requires more caution to prevent potential infections. We wash our yeast if we are concerned the previous beer (if it is very dark or hoppy) will impart unwanted flavours t0 our new beer.
  • Ferments very quickly
    • Since there is so much yeast in a yeast cake, there is nearly no lag time. We’ve had beers finish the fermentation stage within 24 hours. It might be necessary to use a blow-off tube because the fermentation is so vigorous


  • Increased risk of infection
    • Anytime you open up your fermenter, you are at risk of infection. However, this is a risk that can be managed. If you have good sanitation practices, this should not be a concern for you. If you have poor sanitation practices, you should probably not pitch on a yeast cake; you probably should not make beer either.
  • Less esters (over-pitching)
    • Repitching on the yeast cake is not recommended if you want flavour from the yeast. It is difficult to know how many yeast cells are in your yeast cake, making over-pitching very likely. Generally, we are not concerned with over-pitching because we rarely want yeasty flavours (we brew so few Belgian/German styles).
  • Off flavours from dead yeast cells
    • The yeast cake contains a lot of dead yeast cells. These cells can start to affect the flavour of your beer if you reuse the yeast too many times or you let the yeast cells sit in the fermenter too long. However, this should not be an issue if you reuse the yeast just a couple times. We’ve never had an issue with this, but we generally do not use a yeast cake more than 2 times. We recommend not keeping the same yeast cake for more than 5 weeks. Also, do not pitch onto a yeast cake that was used to ferment a high alcohol beer. High alcohol stresses the yeast, and can result in off flavours.
  • Time constraints
    • A yeast cake with no beer on top of it should be used as soon as possible. We don’t like to let it sit for more than a day before pouring another beer on to it (some people say it can be kept for several days if it has a thin layer of beer to covering it, but we have never tried this).
  • Flavour from the previous beer
    • There are two factors to keep in mind to prevent this problem: colour and hoppiness
      • Do not ferment a light coloured beer on the yeast cake of a dark beer, or you will have dark flavours in your light coloured beer.
      • Do not ferment a un-hoppy beer on the yeast cake of a hoppy beer, or you will have hoppy flavours in your un-hoppy beer.

Our position is the pros outweigh the cons (as most of the cons can be mitigated). But that is for you to judge. We don’t think this technique necessarily makes better beer (unless you really don’t want esters), but it does make more efficient beer: spending less money on yeast, and fermenting the beer more quickly. These issues may not be of primary concern to you as a homebrewer, but they are things to consider nonetheless.