Yeast: An Instant History

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.

21 thoughts on “Yeast: An Instant History”

  1. So, Joe…have you ever scraped the foam off your mug of beer and stirred in some flour, and let it sit for a day to see what happens?

    Do they pasteurize beer before bottling to control shelf life? I guess you’d have to hunt up some organic beer or something?

    1. Ha! Oh, the alcohol content is way too high for there to be any yeast left alive. But it’s a fun idea. Now if I BREWED my own beer…

      – Joe

      1. Joe, I don’t think that the alcohol content kills the yeast. Check out bottle-conditioned or cask-conditioned beers – in ‘regular’ beer, the yeast has been removed and/or pasteurization kills anything remaining, but in the ‘conditioned’ ones, I believe the yeast is still active.

        1. Interesting. I guess it stands to reason that yeast couldn’t create so much alcohol that they’d all die off, but at some point I expect they’d be slowed to the point they couldn’t produce any more. Some would probably still be alive, but beer making real isn’t my area of expertise. I understand how they operate in air much better than in water! 😉

          Thanks for the help, Roger!

          – Joe

          1. If you can find bottle-conditioned beer, you can indeed reclaim the yeast. Homebrewers do that sometimes to use a fancypants Belgian yeast strain that’s otherwise hard to come by:

            When making beer the yeast do eventually go dormant as they consume most of the available sugar. But it’s part of the home-brewing and bottling process to get a little bit of secondary fermentation going in the bottles in order to carbonate without a CO2 tank – ~3/4s cups of corn sugar to a 5-gallon batch of beer is enough to give you good carbonation without blowing up your bottles.

        2. Another easy source are the bottle-conditioned Belgian ales, which are readily available. The sludge at the bottom is yeast. The amount of live yeast is fairly small so it needs some tender-loving cultivation before it can be effectively re-used. Note that there is a significant brewing difference between beer yeast and ale yeast – beer yeast bottom ferments and ale yeast top ferments. I don’ t know if that would matter much if either were adapted to bread baking. Some brewers even notice a taste difference between the many beer and ale yeasts available for brewing. Me, not so much… as long as they make alcohol I’m generally happy enough!

          1. Brian:

            Be careful with your commentary on ale vs beer. The products of both ale yeasts (strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and lager yeasts (strains of Saccharomyces pastorianus) are both beer. While you are correct that ales are top fermenting, and lager bottom fermenting, the resulting liquids are both considered beer, along with the products of many other bacteria, such as the members of the Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus genera. Each family, each species, and in truth, each variant within the species will produce and contribute its own delightful chemistry in addition to the alcohols produced, much the same way a granny smith apple tastes completely different from a red delicious, or a honey crisp!


      2. As the wife of a homebrewer, I have actually scooped off a pint of foam from the top of a working brew bucket to make bread. It works very well, and gives a nice sweet, malty flavour to the finished bread. It certainly makes a fluffier loaf than a sourdough starter typically does: I can see why some of the old recipes for richer, sweeter specialty bread call for ale barm rather than starter. Although it’s worth noting that I did this with an unhopped batch of beer – my general experience with yeast from hopped beer is that the bitterness from the hops overwhelms everything else.

        Also – eventually, the yeast will generate enough alcohol to kill themselves off (and you thought pollution was a purely human problem!). Unless you do something to stop the fermentation, the yeast will just keep going until they hit whatever level of alcohol is toxic – I think that’s typically around 9-11% for ale yeast, and more like 20% for wine. Mass-market brewers usually pasteurise their product to stop the fermentation. Homebrewers and small breweries frequently don’t – in fact, homebrew is commonly carbonated by leaving the yeast alive and feeding them a small amount of fermentable sugar when the beer is bottled.

  2. And here in Sweden its just dry packets or the refrigerated moist cubes – red or blue. Sweet doughs Vs. Normal. ces la vi. It really has made it easy to figure out what to use anyways.

    1. A person with a choice has a problem I’ve heard it said. Certainly makes life simpler!

      Thanks, Kitty!

      – Joe

      1. At least the dry stuff seems to be the instant stuff, cuz it works if you mix it into the dough, just works faster if you proof it first. :3

        1. Yes, instant is a form of dry which I’ll talk about today. Thanks, Kitty!

          – Joe

  3. Here in villages of Turkey, people make their own yeast with water and flour in a week of feeding the yeast, stirring and waiting. I guess it is made in other places of the Earth, too. I never heard of obtaining the yeast from brewers, interesting to hear this. There is also a type of yeast obtained through cracking the chickpeas and immersing in water and letting it grow.

    Great research, thanks for sharing!

    1. Hello Kucuk!

      We do the very same thing, though we call those “starters”, wild yeast cultures we use for bread and other things (however most people simply buy their yeast in packages). And yes, some people use fruits of different kinds to get their starter going. They taste different wherever on Earth they’re grown. I’d love to taste a bread made with Turkish starter. Some day I’ll finally get there!

      Thank you for the comment!

      – Joe

  4. Joe,
    Trying to make the pretzels, but I cannot get the starter to show up on the recipe. Love this website.


    1. Hey Donna!

      What exactly do you mean by “show up”? I’m not sure how to help.

      – Joe

  5. We must not forget Adolph Mautner:

    “In 1845 the Association of Vienna Bakers announced a contest for the production of a sweet-fermenting yeast, this prize was awarded in 1850 to Adolph Ignaz Mautner (see biography[4]).”

    This yeast was also compressed, allowing for its convenient transport.

    Before his discovery, bread apparently tasted of the hops and other flavors from beer (as you would expect).

    Going back further, there are those who believe bread was originally a side-product of beer:

    The Egyptians apparently used a form of “beer bread” to ferment their beer – that is a bread especially made to create fermentation.

    Pliny noted that the Gauls skimmed foam from their cervoise (very primitive beer, probably made from barley) and used it in their bread. Possibly the bread itself was also made from barley, which would explain why the Romans, having encountered this method, stuck with sourdough (which was the standard leaven in France for over a millenium). Barley bread made with yeast would not rival wheat bread (which the Romans ate) made with sour dough for quality.

    The women of Gaul also used the foam for their skin. Or at least, in that part of Gaul – many Gauls used millet or other grains which do not rise well and so probably did not use this “yeast” at all.

    A sixteenth century French writer notes that the Flemish used something like yeast for their bread and that their bread was finer and lighter as a result. But for some reason the French stuck with sour dough for another century (though pastry chefs used yeast, because it had less of an after-taste than sour dough).

    There’s a whole book on fermentation (forget the author) for those who really love this subject.

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