A good friend recently got into homebrewing with his father and was telling me that he graduated from dry yeast to a smack pack, referring to Wyeast's packages that contain a yeast nutrient capsule. For those who have not used this, the way it works is you smack the foil envelope (hence the term smack pack), breaking the package of nutrient. Then you wait a day while the yeast grow. The foil envelope expands dramatically, giving you a visual cue that the yeast is alive and healthy. This is a great way to ensure you have good yeast before you start to make your beer.
My friend who told me he was making the switch was very excited, and I am excited for him. I think part of the joy of homebrewing, or any other technical, creative hobby, is trying new things and analyzing results. However, all this begs the question of why someone would make the transition from dry to liquid yeast. As I wrote before, dry yeast typically has lots more yeast cells and is less expensive. It can also be easier to work with. Open the packet, rehydrate, and add it to the wort. It is almost as if dry yeast should be universally preferable. However, liquid yeast has some advantages:
- Already hydrated. There is no need to rehydrate these cells, since they come with a good supply of liquid right from the manufacturer.
- Healthier cells. The yeast cells are healthier because there is no drying process.Drying the cells does not necessarily kill them but it puts them in a state of suspended animation, as they used to call it in the old sci-fi movies. Remember Han Solo in the block of carbon? That's what dried yeast is like. Han came back to life, and so will most of your cells, but it takes a bit of doing to make it happen and if you don't do it right, you can have lethargic, half-blind yeast cells that stumble around like Han Solo did when he was rehydrated.
- More variety. As a testament to this, MoreBeer.com has seven types of dry yeast and 37 types of liquid beer yeast. Northern Brewer has 13 dry and many times that in liquid varieties.
It seems like a no-brainer to go with liquid now, right? Not so fast there, Skippy. The liquid yeasts are a great option, but only contain about 100 billion cells. A typical five-gallon batch needs about 200 billion cells to fully ferment. The liquid types on their own are not quite enough. You should use them to make yeast starters instead of simply pouring them into the fermenter on their own. I have used liquid yeasts a few times without making a starter and they seem fine, but you really do get better results when you grow your sample first, then add it to the fermenter.
So which is better?
Whether to use dry or liquid yeast for your homebrew beer depends on the style of beer you are making and which product is the best fit. Liquid products are not necessarily better and dry ones are not necessarily more primitive. Choosing the right yeast and using it the right way is what will make the difference. Consult your favorite homebrew store or yeast manufacturers' websites to find the optimal fit for what you are making.