Beer Yeast Bread Starter

2 Aug

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Every loaf of bread around here is made with a matured starter. Experience has taught me that a starter is the key ingredient to any bread  made at home; the starter imparts a better taste and texture than just throwing a bunch of active dry yeast into your dough, letting it rise twice, and baking it a few hours later. If you don’t have a starter, then at the very least let your dough hang out in the fridge for a few days – when you taste the difference you won’t be sorry you had to wait so long! Of course, I should also say that I’ve taken no bread making class, everything I’ve learned is from my own personal experience along with a lot of cookbook and internet reading about bread, yeast, starters and baking.

A friend who recently graduated from pastry school shared with me that her teacher specifically instructed the class “never use beer yeast for baking!” Oops, haven’t even been to culinary school and I’m already breaking the rules! The bread pictured above is made with yeast from a bottle of Ommegang Rare Vos.

One of my favorite kitchen experimentations over the last year has been playing around with beer yeast bread starters. To clarify, for all you home brewers out there, this is not taking a packet of White Labs ale yeast and dumping it into a bowl with flour and water. My process involves harvesting the yeast left at the bottom of a bottle conditioned beer. You will want to use the yeast from a beer that is lower on hops, as a higher the hop content will produce a bitter bread (however, totally random idea that just occured – hoppy beer, rye flour, a few caraway seeds… fantastically bitter bread?). You also probably want to do this from a bottle no one has been drinking directly from, just in the name of sanitation and all that.

Beer yeast bread starters lend a slightly sour-dough taste (the longer you keep the starter alive, the more sour the bread will be, in a GOOD way), though the starter does not impart any particular beer flavor (you could use beer as part of the liquid in your bread for that). I’m not looking to add beer flavor to my bread, with these starters I want the matured yeast flavor… the funkier and sourer the yeast flavor the better, in my opinion.

This isn’t quite a recipe, more like a method. I tend to wing it when it comes to almost everything in the kitchen, but I’ve got this process down to some specific measurements by now. If you try this I would LOVE to hear about your results! At the end of the post I’ll share some of the beers that have yielded successful starters.

Beer Yeast Bread Starter


  • Bottle conditioned beer – you want to use yeast from a bomber (22 oz, 750 ml or thereabouts) . See note below regarding my experiences with certain beers.
  • 60 grams unbleached flour (or bread flour)
  • 1/2 cup luke warm water (run the water against your wrist, if it feels neither hot or cold, it’s the right temp)
  • 1-2 teaspoons of honey (optional – sometimes can help get a slow yeast going)

1. It goes without saying, you want to pour off beer from the bottle carefully. This is a fairly normal process used by beer drinkers, so that you don’t have yeasty filled glasses of beer. Once the beer has been poured off and you’ve got a yeast cake and maybe a 1-2 centimeters of beer left, swish it around a bunch to loosen all of the yeast. You want ALL that tasty yeast in your starter!

2. Pour the yeast into a glass bowl. I prefer to use my vintage 2 quart bowls, which I started collecting at thrift stores and flea markets specifically for this obsession (when you’re babying and keeping alive three different starters for weeks at a time and you’re running out of bowls to keep them in, yes, it’s kind of an obsession at that point).

3. Add the flour and water – mix with a fork fairly vigorously. You want to add air, but you do not need to worry about breaking up all the flour clumps. The yeast will do that on it’s own over the next day or so. IT’s alive! IT’s in YOUR kitchen! Cover IT with plastic wrap.

Let it hang out on your kitchen counter – a warm kitchen is best, but anything in the 70s or 80s is good. 60s is OK, but it may just take a little longer for the starter to develop.

4. Check on it in about 12 hours. This type of starter is never going to explode with foamy bubbles like a starter made with active dry yeast, but in order to tell if the yeast is doing it’s thing: look for small bubbles on top of the starter, smell it – if the smell of beer/yeast seems to over power the smell of flour, this is a good thing, move the bowl around and look at the texture of the mixture. You will also see a brownish liquid forming on the top of the starter – this is both any beer left over when you added the yeast, plus probably some new fermented booze. I mix the beer back in because I think it adds to the flavor.

If the starter doesn’t seem to be doing much at all you can add those optional teaspoons of honey at this point. This will often help get the yeast active again.

I normally allow this starter to hang out on the counter for about 2 days, checking on it to ensure it’s moving along and the texture of the mixture is thickening – it will get a glutenous, thickened, bubbly look. Here is a picture of a starter that is doing very well (click for larger image) – yours does not need to have this many bubbles to still be effective – it was 90 degrees outside and this starter practically blew up!

5. After 3-4 days your starter should be matured and ready to be used in your favorite bread recipe. But wait! You just spent all this time making the starter, what if you don’t want use it all up and have to go through that process again?

You can split your starter: scrape about half of it into another glass bowl. Add equal parts flour and water to each container (I like to stick with the 60g flour, 1/2 cup luke warm water ratio, it works for me), stirring in with a fork. Now you’ve got two starters. Let one sit out for about 12 hours, then it’s ready to use.

Stick the other one in the fridge. Once a week you can split it in half again, adding more flour and water to each side, letting one sit at room temperature for 12 hours to use. If you don’t want to continue splitting off, you can get away with just feeding and watering it once a week – adding about 30g flour and 1/4 cup of water. This can go on until your bowl is full. At that point you’ll really need to get to baking some bread!

Here is a short list of beers that I’ve had fairly good success with. Only one beer never yielded much more than a sweet smelling bowl of watery flour that eventually got mold: Dogfish Head Festina Peche (tip: mold on your starter= bad, throw it away!).

  • Ommegang Rare Vos – I’ve used this yeast multiple times with success
  • The Bruery Rugbrod – Don’t much enjoy the beer (which is a bummer, as I do enjoy rye beer) but it makes a fantastic starter. This was the first one I ever used.
  • Emperor Norton’s Cinnamon Stout – does not impart even a HINT of cinnamon to the bread. Made an excellent starter that lasted many weeks. I also froze a few tablespoons of this starter and reconstituted it months later with success.

Next I’d like to experiment more with a Berliner Weisse style beer – the festina didn’t work out because I don’t think it’s really bottle conditioned and the yeast at the bottom was pretty dead.


3 Responses to “Beer Yeast Bread Starter”

  1. fattydumpling August 3, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    This is super neat. I’ve made only a few breadstuffs, and nothing with starters…so this is super neat ;] I’d like to look into starters, because tastier breads sound good, ahah.

    • Harvette August 3, 2010 at 10:25 am #

      yeah, the tastier the bread the more likely people are gonna want to eat it. 😉


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