Without the correct yeast and appropriate fermentation conditions, a brewer will simply be left with (very expensive) flavoured water.

Of course, it is never quite that simple. The hefty 920-page Oxford University Press tome then spends around six pages [1] discussing the composition of yeast, ale and lager yeasts, propagation and fermentation, yeast growth, yeast division and storage and yeast maintenance. That is not counting the separate entries on wild yeast, ale yeast, lager yeast, yeast bank, dry yeast, autolysis and, more worryingly, acid washing and respiratory-deficient mutants.[2]

The Oxford Companion to Beer was one of the most anticipated beer books of recent years. Each of the more than fifty previous Oxford Companions is generally considered an authority on their topic – from English Literature to Italian Food, from Wine to the Bible. It is perhaps only surprising that beer took so long to feature in the long-running series given the topic holds a great deal more interest to most people than, say, American Musicals or Chaucer, both of which had already been covered.

Each section of the book is written by a contributor then reviewed by the editor and his advisory panel. Taking on the daunting role of editor was a man who has never looked likely to suffer from any self-confidence issues, Garrett Oliver, head of Brooklyn Brewery and author of the hugely influential book At the Brewmaster’s Table.

With a work of this scope and depth, there will always be experts challenging some of the material (particularly with the advent of the internet) but from my readings so far [3] the Oxford Companion to Beer seems to be a well-researched and thoughtfully structured book. I see it being a hugely valuable beer resource, right up there with the best of Jackson and Protz. I was fortunate to be one of the first Kiwis to receive a copy thanks to a thoughtful partner and the miracles of internet shopping.

The yeast entry was penned by Sylvie Van Zandycke, the technical sales manager for Lallemand Inc in New Jersey. Here are some highlights:

“Although it is the brewer who makes wort, it is yeast that transforms it into beer. Yeast are unicellular fungi that include several genera including Saccharomyces, the name of which is Latin for “sugar fungus”. And indeed the name is apt – during fermentation Saccharomyces yeast consume wort sugars and give alcohol, carbon dioxide and a range of flavours that we associate with beer…

From a brewing point of view, Saccharomyces cerevisiae is more familiarly known as ale yeast or top-fermenting yeast. These yeast types have been known for thousands of years, although the nature of micro-organisms was a mystery to ancient brewers 3,000 years ago.

In contrast, the more recently domesticated lager yeast is a different species known as Saccharomyces pastorianus. It was recently found to be a natural hybrid of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces bayanus (a species sometimes used in winemaking)…

Lager yeasts were first used by Bavarian brewers 200 years ago and rapidly made their way into breweries around the world to become by far the most used yeast in the brewing industry. Because of their relatively recent usage, lager yeasts are not as genetically diverse as ale yeasts and, as a consequence, lager beers tend to have a rather similar flavour profile when compared with the variety of ale yeasts…”

Choosing exactly the right yeast will be crucial to winning the first ever Wellington In A Pint competition. Organised by Clemenger BBDO, it is a Wellington-wide home brewing competition to see who can capture the very essence of Wellington in a beer. It was recently launched at the Fork & Brewer. This is what the organisers have planned:

“In Round One we’re asking the Wellington public to tell us if Wellington were a beer, what would it be like? Suggestion boxes will be located in selected Wellington craft beer bars [4] where the Wellington public can submit their Wellington-inspired beer ideas from March 16 to March 30.

In Round Two we’ll use these suggestions as inspiration for home brewers to craft their own Wellingtonesque beer. The home brewed beers will then be put through their paces by our panel of experts, (including pro craft brewers, Martin Bosley and BEASTWARS [5] to name but a few) at a special tasting event on June 9, where four winners will be selected.

In Round Three their beers will be honed and brewed professionally by some of Wellington’s best craft breweries – Tuatara, Garage Project, Yeastie Boys and ParrotDog.

And then, finally, in Round Four the beers will be released in local craft beer outlets for the public’s delectation. The beers will be available on tap and as a four pack. All in the name of proving once and for all that Wellington is the craft beer capital of NZ!”

[1] Plus six academic footnotes which are not nearly as fun as these ones.

[2] RD mutants, as they are also known, are defective yeast cells which can still ferment, albeit slowly and often producing off-flavours.

[3] I must confess to only reading a few dozen entries so far. The Oxford Companion To Beer does not strike me as the kind of book which is read cover to cover at the beach very often

[4] Including Malthouse…

[5] … and including me…


Neil Miller

Beer Writer

Real Beer New Zealand

Beer and Brewer Magazine


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