Preparing your yeast in a starter before adding it to a juice is a great way to insure that you will have a successful, sound fermentation. Creating a yeast starter will help your fermentation take-off more rapidly and finish more completely. What I like to tell people is that a yeast starter allows the yeast to hit the juice with its feet running--so to speak. It gives the yeast a head start so that no time is wasted when its time for your yeast to get busy.
So, What Is A Yeast Starter?
A yeast starter is a liquid mixture of nutrients and sugars. Wine yeast is added to a small amount of this mixture 2 to 6 days before you are ready to ferment a juice. During this time the yeast is actually doing a mini fermenting--creating more yeast cells and becoming stronger.
What A Yeast Starter Is Not
A yeast starter should not be confused with the rehydration process that is called for on many packets of dried wine yeast. Rehydration is simply putting dried yeast in water a few minutes before you add it to the juice. This is different than making a yeast starter. NOTE: I would like to point out that rehydration is a process that we DO NOT recommend as it can potentially lead to many problems with only minor benefits. But, that's another story.
How To Make A Yeast Starter
There are several ways you can go about making a yeast starter. First of all, you can use a small portion of the juice to be fermented as a starter. The problem is you need to make the starter several days before the juice is ready to ferment. So quite often the juice may not be available yet. You can also obtain a different juice ahead of time. However, if it is purchased from the grocery store you must be certain that there are no preservative in the juice that will interfere with the yeast. Watch out for ingredients listed on the label such as Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, etc. You can use fresh juice from apples, grapes or oranges, but fresh juices must be boiled and cooled before using it as a starter mix. This is to sterilize the juice. If the juice has been pasteurized before-hand, then this step is not necessary.
Regardless of where the juice comes from, you can make a yeast starter with it by adding a 1/4 teaspoon of Yeast Nutrient and 2 teaspoons of sugar for every pint of mix. One pint of yeast starter is sufficient for 5 gallons of wine. One gallon of yeast starter is sufficient for 50 gallons of wine and so on. Just multiply the above recipe as necessary.
If all of the above preparing seems like too much messing around then we have another, more convenient solution. We have a yeast starter that requires no juice at all. We call it Quick Starter. This specially designed starter mix can be used by simply boiling it with water for 10 minutes and allowing it to cool. It is packed with a well-rounded selection of 14 different vitamins, nutrients and foods--chosen specifically for starting your wine yeast. And, it comes with complete directions. Once the yeast start has been prepared, you can then add your wine yeast to it. Add the same amount of wine yeast to the yeast starter as you would to the entire batch of wine. For example, if you have a five gallon batch of wine and are preparing a 1 pint starter, you would want to add one whole 5 gram package of wine yeast to it.
How To Use A Yeast Starter
Over the course of 1 to 2 days you will see the starter begin to foam. With liquid wine yeast it can take a couple of days longer. But, with most dried wine making yeast it is 1 to 2 days. Once the activity level of the yeast starter's fermentation peaks, it is then ready to be added to your juice. For best results you should not wait until the activity has completely died down, but rather, add it to a juice while it is still active. The best way I have found to gauge when to add a starter to a juice is to monitor the level of foaming. Right after you see the foaming peak and start to fall this is the ultimate time to add it to your must. When adding the start to your wine, gently swirl the sediment up off the bottom of the starter first, so that the entire starter is added to the wine.
A Few Words About Nutrients
Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.