Real Wort Starters Overview

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As an entry level brewer I did little more than buy a Whitelabs vial, bring it to 70ish degrees, gave it a good shake and pitched it into a carboy full of cool wort. Voila! It worked. Eventually, curiosity, evolution, the desire for better beer, or whatever we are calling it today, took over and I started really researching and experimenting with my process. I quickly (after about 2 batches) made the switch from extract to all-grain. I soon realized how much I really didn’t know about brewing and how many areas of my process needed attention.
I read through John Palmer’s How to Brew, and The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian. At the time, I figured the easiest change that I could make would be to start making yeast starters. I constructed a few stir-plates and began making starters with dry malt extract (DME). My fermentations started much sooner and typically finished more completely and with lower final gravity readings.

From DME to Real Wort For Starters

Real wort starter
With a little help from all the fine folks at HomeBrewTalk and countless hours of reading yeast related posts, I began adding yeast nutrients to my DME starters. Everything from DAP to Superfood, and they have also had very positive results with my beer. I can’t pinpoint exactly where I got the idea (there’s no doubt it was from the HomeBrewTalk forums), but a couple of years ago I started collecting second runnings from my all-grain to use for starters. While my batch is boiling, I collect a gallon (give or take) of wort from the grain bed. The gravity is checked and then boiled to get to around 1.040 gravity reading. During that boil, I add yeast nutrients. I then cool it, label it with the date, style of beer and gravity reading then store the wort in bulk in the freezer until needed (you can also store it in the fridge if you can use it soon). This process is also called a real wort starter.
It works well for me in that I have moved to an area where we don’t have a local homebrew shop (LHBS), so all my supplies are mail-ordered. When I am planning a brew day, I remove the wort from the freezer at the same time I order my supplies. Once it is thawed, it goes into the refrigerator with the yeast pack from my order. When the time comes to make the starter, I just pour the yeast and wort into the Erlenmeyer flask with a stir bar, then onto the stir plate it goes.

Are They Different?

Starters on a stir plate
Although I have no science to prove anything either way, I do believe that using real wort starters from the previous batch (or at least the same style) leads to a cleaner and more repeatable finished product (Anecdotally). Sure, there are different colors of DME and the starters can be custom tailored to the style of beer that is being brewed, but I just don’t think it’s the same. The time spent collecting and storing real wort, for my process, isn’t much different than the time spent on a DME batch. When I do the pre-freezer work during the final boil of the beer batch, it feels that the overall prep time is a little less. Like many things in the home brewing process, preparing the starter either way could take several hours if I let it. I do like not having to worry about having or ordering DME. Without having a LHBS, there have been a couple of times where I had to pitch the yeast from the vial because I didn’t remember to order DME for my starter. If you are a "no-chill" brewer, you can actually make a starter from the actual beer you brewed while waiting for the batch to cool on its own.

Costing It Out

From a cost perspective, DME really isn’t terribly expensive, so doing it this way isn’t a huge cost savings. Then again, I am all about driving my cost per beer as low as I can. For me, the real benefit rests within, with my “I made this” pride. This is another part of the process where I am able to get away from using a mass-produced product in favor of something I have more control over.

Making A Real Wort Starter Versus A DME Starter

This chart shows the basic steps to building both a real wort starter and a traditional DME based starter.

Although, to be honest, I can’t say that I use real wort 100% of the time. The reality is that I am probably only using it 75 to 80% of the time. I am not saying that one is better, cheaper, or fits a particular style better than the other, but it is another option available to homebrewers. To that end, we may not find one item or technique that fits every style of beer or that fits into each and every brew day. Whether brewing is a hobby, a passion or an obsession, at the end of the day each brewer has to find what works best for them. If you use real wort starters, be sure to share your experiences in the comments.
Excellent write-up! I don't think I ever thought of doing a real-wort starter, but I just might now. I appreciate your inclusion of your step-up process for your starter. Good to know how others do it, because I still haven't been able to get a definitive calculator or process for how to do multi-step starters including reducing the volume between steps (which, I know, dumps a lot of good yeast, but I don't think it's good practice to pitch a huge volume of starter into a batch of wort I've crafted so carefully).
I do something similar to what you do above, with a twist. When I am done draining the MLT to the BK, I heat up about a gallon of water, toss it into the MLT, and later drain it to a jug. It usually comes out in the 1.030-1.040 range if I let it sit long enough. This goes into the fridge and is boiled/cooled/pitched the next week or two when I am preparing to brew again. If longer than that, I pitch it and use DME which I get from a group grain buy so it is fairly cheap. I also make starters as soon as I get a new vial or whatever of yeast, split it into two batches, using one for my next starter and the other gets made into a starter, split, and repeat so I use a single vial for about 10 batches before I purchase another. Starters are so simple to do, can save you money, and make better beer...Cheers!
I was going to do this once before but when I checked the second runnings it was only 1.020. Didn't feel like it was worth the time and effort to boil wort down by that much.
One of these days i'm going to up the grain bill by 7-8% and collect an extra gallon into the main kettle, then run it off to save.
But then again, DME is cheap.
Excellent article! I've been looking to up my game on the yeast part of the process, you just summarized all I needed to know, thanks!
DME is pretty expensive where I live (no LHBS here either). I'm brewing a 2.5G batch now to prepare yeast for a 10G batch next week since the cost of DME was only slightly less than a Coopers kit from the supermarket (and this way I get 2.5G of beer out of it).
Definitely keen to start freezing wort out of grains that would otherwise be thrown out. I figure there isn't much else to do while the boil is happening so using that time to prep for the next batch makes sense to me.
It seems an awful lot of bother to go to i just use so4 and i think its fantastic as it produces a beautful milk stout and ive got it on gas 25/75 cheers
Nice write up! Add some mason jars and a pressure cooker and you can "can" that wort for long storage at room temperature and save refrigerator space. I have been doing this for years and can't remember the last time I purchased DME.
I should have added that canning with the pressure cooker takes care of sanitization so I skip the boiling step you mentioned.
You could also just mash a few pounds of grain and save the wort for starters. Definitely cheaper than DME. Add Johnny's suggestion of canning in a pressure cooker, and it's sterilized and requires no refrigeration.
If your style of beer works well with S04 then yeah, no need to go through the extra work. Of course, many of us have good reason to use specific yeast strains not available in dehydrated form. If that's the case then to us it is very much worth it to make a starter.
I'm not knocking what you're doing and I don't understand why you would knock what some of us do by using liquid yeast and making starters. I could respond to what you do by saying that it's an awful lot of bother you go through to make your own beer when they sell all kinds of beer down at the corner store.
I don't really feel like DME is cheap. It's about $4/lb at my lhbs. I make 10G batches and use around 1lb of DME to make a 4L starter. With a new smack pack and a starter I'm at $11 for a batch of beer. If I harvest yeast and use "real wort" I can bring that cost per batch down significantly.
This is the only calculator I use for starters.
I overbuild every starter by 100b cells (approx 1 vial of White Labs) and then put that in a Ball jar to use for my next starter. The rest gets chilled, decanted and pitched. As long as you date your yeast, you can get a lot of mileage out of one vial... I've gone as far as 10 generations with no problems.
Interesting idea! My system isn't terribly efficient, so this might really be a useful way to recapture some of those losses!
Well written. I've thought about using base malt but never the full mix by collecting again at the end of mash. Great ideas. Also like the canning idea from the comment section.
Good info. One thing I wonder when using second runnings and pressure canning - what happens to the things you want to boil off, such as DMS? With DME it's already gone, but it can't escape in the pressure canner.
I usually use DME as it's quick and easy, but I did use runnings a couple times, and did not boil prior to pressure canning. Having to boil it twice greatly increases the effort. I do 7 qts at a time using DME, and IIRC costs under $1 per qt. A dedicated mash is the only way I'll ever get 7 qts at once, and I'd rather be making beer with that time! Although I've thought about this to use up some older base grains. I fully decant my starters, so there should be no off flavor with them.
hmm.. There is absolutely no difference at all in between using DME wort and mashed wort in the final product per same cell count-- none-- especially if you crash and decant your starters, which IMHO you should. Try using second runnings in a partigyle style. You might come up a little short when you do this so having some DME to bump it up works pretty well too. Or mash a half gallon to a gallon ore and adjust to 1.040.
The real fun comes when you pressure can. It's a bit of a pain when you do it, but it works wonders and I love being able to just pop a can or two of room temperature wort to do a starter on a whim. I actually use a pressure cooker and do only 4 or so quart jars but it works fine. 15 PSI at least to be safe.
As for DMS. If it were even a real problem at that scale.. which likely it isn't.. COLD CRASH AND DECANT the starter. DMS will go down the drain just fine that way. Drink the best of your starter beer and tell me that the extra 2 days wait isn't work the decant...
I like Real Wort Starters as well, when combined with the Vitality Starter method.
1) After mash and sparge, I use a measuring cup to sparge with an additional 750 mL water. These "3rd runnings" are for my starter, while the boil is beginning, and are added directly to the flask. (I haven't checked SG on this in awhile, but usually they're around 1.020 or a little less.)
2) On another burner, I boil the 3rd runnings in the flask using a drop of fermcap for just a few minutes.
3) The flask is cooled in the sink, often just as the main boil is beginning.
4) I pitch my yeast (often leftover slurry), add a foam stopper, and shake the living daylights out of it until it is more foam than wort.
5) Finish main boil and chill. On my process, it takes another 4 hours or so inside my ferm chamber to get down to pitching temp. Shake the starter periodically.
6) Pitch entire starter at 4 hours in (which is all of about 500mL by this point.) Kräusen usually begins within a few more hours.
I started using FastPitch canned starter wort from Northern Brewer. It costs $10 for four cans. It saves me having to buy DME or boil and cool wort for the starter in order to sanitize it. Just add 16 oz of distilled or RO water (they even say you can use tap water) to one can of FastPitch and you have a 1 liter starter. No boiling is needed. The biggest saving is time. Which leads to my next point: I stopped making cell-increasing starters and started making vitality starters. The morning of brew day the yeast gets added to my FastPitch starter wort on my stir plate, and by the end of brew day it's ready to pitch. The lag time is between four hours (for re-pitched, refrigerated slurry) to 16 hours (for fresh smack packs). The results have been fantastic! And I save a huge amount of time and a decent amount of energy.
I like to mash about 2lb for a about 1.5gal starter using BIAB on the stove, plus some nutrients. That way I mash at 147degF, which is lower than my recipes. Probably doesn't even matter, but it's my hobby. This is just about right for a batch in my pressure canner, but lately the whole volume is getting boiled and used by lager starters.
Interesting approach though to be honest I'd be surprised if the resulting beer ere much different than standard method. HOWEVER, it would be cool to do a triangle test with separate starters. You may want to submit the idea to he Experimental Brewing podcast for eval.
How would you do this in a BIAB process? Do you just make a little extra wort and then drain it off and store it after chilling?
I do this all the time, but don't pressure can it. I just use it right away. DME is expensive here in Canada and I save $10.00 every time I do it. However, it does take time to do though, at least 2- 3 hrs. I use my old Williams Mash bucket and Mash Jacket I bought back in 1998. Thanks for a well written article. I do plan on making a larger starter wort and tossing it in the freezer.