What Is the Difference Between Beer Yeast and Wine Yeast?

You want to brew another batch of beer and find that you only have wine yeast on hand. Yeast is yeast, right? Is there really that big of a difference between beer yeast and wine yeast? 

The biggest difference between beer yeast and wine yeast is that beer yeast can ferment maltose, a complex sugar present in wort but not in wine. Using wine yeast to brew beer could lead to unexpected flavors or aromas. Many breweries have begun to use it for secondary fermentation to increase the ABV of the final beer without affecting the flavor.

Keep reading for more about the differences between beer yeast and wine yeast, as well as information on using wine yeast to brew beer.

Can you use wine yeast to make beer?

It is technically possible to make beer using wine yeast, however, the method has some contingencies and potential drawbacks. 

Wine yeast can reach higher alcohol levels than beer yeasts on average. This can be an attractive possibility for a brewer. However, you need to consider that there are certain aromas and flavors inherent to wine yeasts that aren’t found in most beer flavor profiles. 

That isn’t to say it is always a bad idea to brew with wine yeast! To combat potential off-flavors and aromas wine yeast could produce, breweries will often ferment first with an appropriate beer yeast for the style and then use wine or champagne yeast in secondary fermentation. 

Some breweries have begun using champagne yeast both to ramp up the ABV of a beer as well as to produce a bone-dry beer. Champagne yeast is a clean, neutral yeast, unlikely to impart other flavors to the beer.

Some commercial examples of using champagne or other wine yeast include: 

Champagne yeast can also theoretically be used to nudge along a ‘stuck’ fermentation. While there are mixed reviews on homebrew message boards regarding its efficacy, if a brewer truly has no other options, it is definitely worth a try to pitch a champagne yeast starter.

Does wine yeast ferment maltose?

Wine yeasts and beer yeasts have been bred to accomplish different things in the respective liquids they are bound to ferment.

Beer yeast processes maltose – the sugar found in malt – a crucial step in beer fermentation. Wine yeast cannot process maltose; instead, it ferments fructose and glucose, two sugars not often present in wort.

Because of this difference, wine yeast will not perform predictably in a beer yeast recipe and cannot be used interchangeably.

Beer yeast vs wine yeast – how are they different?

The main fermenting agent for beer, wine, sake, cider, and other fermented foods and beverages, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has an incredible range and diversity among its 651 strains. This means the variants of S. cerevisiae contribute unique flavor profiles to whatever they ferment.

This diversity has a number of contributors and factors.

Here are the most important aspects to consider when comparing beer yeast and wine yeast:  

  • History of the two kinds of yeast
  • Various strains
  • Fermentables
  • Amount of yeast to pitch
  • Alcohol tolerance
  • Flocculation
  • Attenuation
  • Flavor profiles
  • Fermentation time
  • Bottle conditioning

History

Beer yeasts and wine yeasts may come from the same species of yeast, but their cultivation and development have each happened at different stages and in different ways over history.

People have been brewing beer and making wine for centuries. Genetic differences between beer yeast and wine yeast evolved because brewers and winemakers worked during differing times of the year.

The seasonal nature of wine meant vintners didn’t have to rely on collecting and reusing yeast from batch to batch. Instead, they only had to break the skin of the grapes they’d harvested and allow the wild yeasts to kick off fermentation. This once-yearly dash to harvest grapes and ferment them into wine meant (and continues to mean) wildly different results from vintage to vintage.

Beer, on the other hand, can be made at any time of the year. Brewers took note of which batches were best and began cultivating yeasts specifically to consistently make delicious beer.

Strain

Brewers have cultivated various strains off of the original species of S. cerevisiae for centuries in order to fit their needs and the environment around them.

Due to human intervention (or lack thereof) over hundreds of years, beer yeast and wine yeast are both S. cerevisiae but no longer the same strain.

According to researchers at the University of Leuven, beer yeasts have become so specialized over the centuries that they cannot survive in nature. 

Wine yeast, on the other hand, is a little more complicated in modern winemaking. There are thousands of winemakers that only ferment using the ambient yeast present in the winery. However, since the 1990s, many winemakers use genetically engineered wine yeasts that produce a consistent-tasting wine year after year and contain a ‘killer factor’ that neutralizes any other yeast present.

Fermentables

Beer yeast ferments maltose whereas wine yeast ferments fructose and glucose.

Maltose is present in malt, or dried cereal grain, which is used when brewing. Fructose and glucose are present in fruits, which when fermented, become wine. 

Amount of yeast to pitch

Pitching yeast into both beer and wine is fairly similar:  it can be rehydrated just before pitching or added as a starter. The liquid also needs to be at an appropriate temperature for the specific yeast being used – lagers need cooler wort temperatures to keep from killing the yeast, and ales and wines can be at warmer temperatures. 

Online calculators exist for both wine and beer yeast pitching.

Generally speaking, because of wine’s more wild nature, you need significantly less yeast than brewing beer.

It’s recommended that you use about 5 grams of wine yeast per 5 gallons of grape must. For beer, it can be anywhere between 7 and 14 grams of beer yeast per 5 gallons of wort, depending on the style.

Alcohol tolerance

Wine yeasts can produce wines that come in at 11-18% whereas beer yeasts tend to top out naturally around 8-10% ABV. These wide ranges are due to the variance between different strains of both beer and wine yeasts.

Overall, wine yeast has more tolerance for higher alcohol content than beer yeast. These percentages can be increased by other means.

In beer, adding fruit or sugar gives the yeast more sugars to convert, increasing the alcohol content.

In wine, this can be achieved by adding sugar in a process called chaptalization. It’s the same basic idea of giving the yeast another opportunity to create more alcohol.

However, while adding fruit to beer will completely change its flavor profile and character, adding sugar to wine will not work to improve a sub-par wine. It’ll only make it more alcoholic. 

Flocculation

Flocculation, or the clumping together of yeast cells that happens after all the sugars have been converted into alcohol.

Many beer strains are genetically disposed to cause this clumping for easier removal of dead yeast cells while wine strains are not.

The beer yeast strains were bred for flocculation for easier removal, while wine yeast strains have largely been left alone.

In beer, the yeast can float to the top of the wort and create a krausen (in ales) or sink to the bottom of the carboy (in lagers). Sometimes beer requires refrigeration to get those yeast cells to fall out of suspension.

In the case of wine, the yeast cells (called lees) are less predictable. They can fall to the bottom of the vessel (whether that’s a vat or a bottle) or remain in suspension (again, in the vat or bottle). Winemakers can choose a number of methods to fine and filter their wine or leave it in its natural state upon bottling. 

Attenuation

Attenuation refers to how much sugar is converted into alcohol during fermentation.

Attenuation is dependent on environmental factors in both beer and wine, and is also defined by each yeast strain.

Winemakers are usually looking for 100% attenuation, as the majority of wines on the market are dry. To make a sweeter wine, they would choose a wine yeast with a low attenuation rate (72 or lower). Champagne yeasts tend to have a medium attenuation rate since they are added to a still wine alongside liquer de tirage (essentially a sugar mixture) before being sealed under a bottle cap. This is how sparkling wine is made (see Bottle Conditioning, below).

Beer yeast can provide a range of attenuation for homebrewers to select the best strain for the style of beer they’re brewing. A richer beer with caramel notes would do well with a low attenuation rate, while a crisper beer would want to be paired with higher attenuation.

Flavor profile

Both beer and wine yeasts are selected by brewers and winemakers respectively in order to impart certain flavors.

Using wine yeast to brew beer could lead to off-flavors and aromas, as grains and grapes don’t entirely match up on the flavor spectrum. 

There is some overlap in certain categories – citrus notes, tropicality, herbal qualities – but a lot of discordances otherwise. Some white wine yeast strains have prominent parmesan or buttermilk notes which could be rather jarring if found in beer.  

Fermentation time

Wine ferments more slowly than most beer.

Fermentation times vary from strain to strain as well as factors such as temperature, aeration, and the yeast-to-sugar ratio. These same factors apply to wine, as well. 

For more information about beer fermentation, read this article.

Ales ferment in 1-3 weeks and lagers typically within 6 weeks. Wine, however, can take as long as a year to fully ferment.

Primary fermentation happens pretty quickly (about a week) because there’s plenty of sugar for the yeast to convert into alcohol.

It’s in secondary fermentation that everything slows down significantly. Like beer, you can use a hydrometer to determine when fermentation is over.

Bottle conditioning

Bottle conditioning looks very similar between beer and wine. In both cases, more sugar and yeast are added to an already fermented liquid, then capped in a bottle.

This re-fermentation produces CO2 in both beer and wine, which creates effervescence and can lead to more nuanced and developed flavors. Also in both cases, the bottles need time to age, usually several weeks. 

Bottle conditioning is not performed on the majority of either beer or wine on the market. Most beer is injected with some carbon dioxide under pressure, and most wine on the shelves is still. 

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