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Winemaking: Yeast Starter


Preparing your yeast in a starter before adding it to the must 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. Using a yeast starter can cut a day to several days off fermentation. It also insures yeast viability and gets the yeast acclimated to its new environment.

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. The yeast hydrates and rapidly multiplies during this time.

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 already been pasteurized, 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 (2 cups) 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.

Yeast Starter for 1 gallon must

It takes 12 hours to make.

Make 2 tbsp presweetened juice by boiling 2 tbsp juice and 1/8 tsp granulated white sugar (this sterilizes it) then letting it cool to room temperature.

Boil 1/4 cup tap water and let cool to 105� F. Add 1/3 tsp (1 gram) yeast. Cover and let sit 5 minutes then stir gently. Cover. Check after 30 minutes to make sure it is viable. Cover for 3 1/2 hrs.

Add 1 tbsp presweetened sterilized juice. Cover and wait four hours.

Again, add 1 tbsp presweetened sterilized juice. Cover and wait four hours.

The yeast starter is ready to pitch into must.

Quick Starter

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 13 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

The yeast starter should be the same temperature as the must.

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. 


When you make a yeast starter, you should see lots of activity in the actual starter before you stir it into the bucket of must.

To make a starter:
There are many ways to make a starter, this just happens to be my way -
Add the yeast to the water when the water is about 104F. Let it set for about two minutes, then lightly stir in the yeast, which are still floating on the surface of the water. Let it set a few more minutes then look straight down into the starter. It may begin slowly, but soon it will be as though from outer space you are looking down on a huge fireworks display below. It is though small pinhole spots erupt outwardly but just below the surface of the liquid. You will know them when you see them.

One good reason to make such a starter is to confirm that your yeast are viable. If you don't see what I described, you will know you need to acquire some more yeast and you won't waste your time waiting up to 72 hours for fermentation to never start.

Once you start seeing those small explosions, add a tablespoon of your must to it. It soon should start foaming. In about 2 or 3 minutes, add another two tablespoons of must. Repeat this step about 3 or 5 more times. By now you should see lots of activity.

For any yeast starter chemical like Go-Ferm, follow the directions as to when it should be added to the starter. Some have you add it before adding the yeast to the water; some later. Same if you use a nutrient; add it per the directions.

Let the temperature of the starter slowly drop to within a few degrees of the bucket of must, so adding it won't cause the yeast to go into shock. At that time, pour the starter into the must and lightly stir it in. The bucket of must (now legally called wine) should start fizzing within 8 to 12 hours.

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