Yeast as an ingredient has been historically very closely tied to beer making. The first leavened breads were made from porridges that were left sitting out too long and eventually fermented (the first bread starters), but bakers soon came to understand that quicker, stronger, more aggressive rises could be achieved when the scum left over from beer making (what we now understand to be a thriving yeast culture) was added to dough.
Beer has been around for at least ten thousand years…about as long as bread, unsurprisingly. We know the ancient Egyptians brewed beer, though even earlier records of beer making come from the mountainous region of western Iran. So from the very earliest days of agriculture in the West, beer, and by extension bread, was hot stuff all around the Mediterranean, across the Middle East and up into the Eurasian steppes. From there it spread into the backward and barbarous lands of Europe and the British Isles. Out-of-control football hooliganism followed soon after.
It took millennia to get from there to a packaged yeast product. Dutch and German brewers began selling wet yeast cultures to other beer makers as the Industrial Revolution began kicking into high gear in the late 1700?s. Drier, more cake-like yeasts began to appear on the market in the 1870?s. The American packaged yeast industry began when a former distillery manager by the name of Charles Louis Fleischmann arrived in Cincinnati from Budapest, looked around at the state of bread making, and saw barbarism. He and his brother Maximilian opened America’s first commercial yeast manufacturing plant in 1868.
Still, Fleischmann’s yeast was mostly a commercial product. Home bakers of the time usually just went a local brewery to collect some liquid “cream” yeast if they wanted to bake their own bread. It took World War II to bring dried, granulated yeast to the retail market. Developed in the 20’s by the Fleischmann Company as a way to give armed forces in the field a taste of home, it didn’t see much use until American troops began employing it in the European theater some 15 years later. When the war ended granulated — “active dry” — yeast became a household staple. It’s used to this day.
Which is not to say it hasn’t been improved upon. After decades of R&D the Fleischmann Company debuted “instant yeast” in the early 80’s. A version of instant, known as “rapid rise” came along soon after, primarily intended for use in home bread machines. More specialized yeasts — so-called “osmotolerant” yeast and “pizza” yeast — have hit the retail market in recent years. More on those in subsequent posts.