The Hop-Thompson School District and the praise of the yeast maker


The Hop-Thompson School District and the praise of the yeast maker

In many current cultures of distillation Yeast is not much of a focus, this is much to the detriment of the distiller in my opinion as much variation and differentiation can be obtained via yeast.  As an example, in Scotch Whisky production yeast is probably the least studied/focused on factor of distillation with the focus instead falling upon the “character” of each individual distillery.  Character of course by the Scottish definition is determined by all other variables including, but not limited to: still shape, still size, condenser type, phenolic content of malt (smokiness, if at all), fermentation length ext.  The same is unfortunately true of most American Brandy whereupon the only real focus seems to be inherently on pot stills, fruit type, blending, barrel wood, and possibly proofing and water type.  Most mid-size or larger Brandy producers are leaving the production of their wine (and in many cases low wines) up to winemakers (who are not distillers) who have a very different take on fermentation as they are typically creating a product for drinkability in a form (wine) that holds onto much more of the raw ingredient as opposed to a distillate which is focused on concentrating those ingredients into a brandy.  These arts, wine and brandy making, while having similarities are in fact quite different from one another.  In fact, the larger scale producers in the brandy industry are the worst in my opinion, focusing typically on only one type of yeast; Prise De Mousse.  This strain is better known to home brewers and wine makers as EC-1118.  Unfortunately for distillers and drinkers this strain which does produce high alcohol and retains much of the fruit aroma also produces a ton of acetone and subsequently a larger percentage of “heads” during distillation.  The acetone produced by the yeast is only half of the problem itself unfortunately as acetone compounds are readily sought out and bonded to by sulfites, the compounds which cause the smell of rotten eggs or even a burnt character.  Without anything to “cling” to these sulfites would ordinarily be volatized during fermentation or dropped out of solution during distillation via copper contact, hence the need and I would think the want for a better, low acetone producing strain, many of which currently exist on the market.

The Bourbon and Rye distillation cultures of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky by contrast have always been very focused on yeast (sometimes to the detriment of other factors) and have long familial traditions of yeast “making” and propagation which were traditionally handed down (up until recently as I don’t know how many facilities even still have a Dona Room vs those which say they do for marketing reasons) from generation to generation.  The knowledge of yeast catching and propagation learned by tried and hard experience that likely dates back to the old countries and “The old Traditions” (read as “How things should be done.”) were highly regarded skills.  Elsewhere my friend Michael Veach has spoken often of Jim Beam and his Jug yeast (a term used to denote a yeast culture maintained by a distiller, often stored in or transferred in a copper jug with a stop cock and fount and kept close to the distiller’s vest) which he apparently captured using a yeast starter (basically a “thin” mash beer, we will talk more on this in a bit) on his screened in back porch in Bardstown Kentucky towards the end of prohibition.  If my understanding is correct this yeast was passed on to a couple of other facilities with Beam family on staff including Heaven Hill and Makers Mark where it likely underwent slight mutations over the years and became unique in its own right to those facilities.  The “foxiness” (diesel fuel like aroma) that permeates white label beam is often attributed to this strain.

Old distilling manuals written in this country such as The Distiller by Harrison Hall and The Practical Distiller by  Samuel M’Harry make much of yeast making and really stress the importance of a good yeast culture, preferably in the form captured by the distiller and when all else fails obtained via a brewer or bread maker.  Looking back on history one can indeed see that the term “master distiller” is a relatively new invention and Michael Veach and Chuck Cowdery have both pointed out that the title of distinction was once “Distiller and Yeast Maker” and making yeast was often the first job tasked to a new employee who it was hoped would move up the ranks.

This operation was paramount as it controlled a vast percentage of the quality of a distillate and while it was a simple process to propagate yeast by ensuring that equipment was sterile, properly feeding the yeast the necessary nutrients (dead yeast cells from previous batches), maintaining PH via Sour Mash or Hopped method (more shortly), and ramping up cell production to produce the critical mass needed to ferment a large amount of still beer, a single mistake could easily contaminate the whole lot and cause the distiller to throw out his characteristic strain, changing in fact the product forever.  There were even entire rooms in a production facility dedicated to these procedures, these were called Dona rooms and they were the Holy of Holies of most distilleries.  The word Dona may be a derivative of the Latin word for “mother” and this yeast culture would most certainly be the “mother” of the alcohol she produced much like a “mother” culture used in vinegar production.  In fact many of these cultures in the old days probably contained far more than yeast and likely included beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus (responsible for changing acids in an admixture to softer Lactic acid and adding an earthy or nutty tone) and perhaps in some cases Brettanomyces (used in sour beers) and Acetobacter (responsible for the production of Acetic Acid or vinegar), if  some of those elements sound odd to you bear in mind that tastes in those days were quite different and remain as such outside of the United States where the devotion to all things “sterile” has not become the mental illness it has in this country.  In fact, many fruit distilling cultures readily accept Acetobacter as not just an acceptable component of fermentation and distillation but a desirable one in small quantities.


The Dona Jug recently used to revive Steve Beams grandfathers yeast

So, how does one capture a yeast culture?  The most common method was by producing a thin mash or beer composed primarily of barley malt (or corn malt or whatever is common) and placing it in a favorable situation to collecting the appropriate type of yeast for alcoholic fermentation.  Sometimes this was around the home, sometimes in a vineyard or an orchard and sometimes it was accelerated by simply dipping an apple or other fruit into the beer where the naturally occurring yeast (yeas are very common and are an essential part of the decomposition process nature has provided us with for disposing of organic waste) were washed into the beer. Brandy distillers were mostly making use of the natural yeast found on the fruit and should that yeast prove particularly effective then they would harvest some “trub” (the flocculated yeast cells and cellulosic material) from the bottom of the fermentation barrel for propagation in a similar way. From there one would watch the action of fermentation; how quickly it began, how vigorous it was, what tastes did it create or bring forward, and did it create a pleasing aroma.  If the boxes were all checked yes, the yeast was then propagated by pitching into a new thin mash or into a mash the same as the whiskey.  Yeast could be stored as a liquid in the aforementioned Dona jugs, often stored in cold houses or cool spring water or could be allowed to flocculate (fall out of suspension) and then folded into a “dough” of wheat or rye flour, dried on parchment, and stored for later use.

Earlier we had mentioned two types of yeast starter a sour mash method and a hopped method.  The sour mash method would have used a percentage of spent wash/mash from a previous distillation (usually about 10% by volume of container) to feed the yeast via the dead yeast cells in the wash but to also adjust the PH to the proper level around 4.5 or so.  The second method used instead Hops, obviously common to beer but not terribly common to American distillation (though beer schnapps and botanical spirits utilizing hops have been common in Europe for ages) the Hops would subsequently drop the PH of the mash which would allow the yeast to begin to propagate itself without the distiller having to worry much about a bacterial infection taking over instead.  So, on to some Washington County Indiana history……


The distillers of Washington County were fairly diverse and many had families who were traditional distillers going back to the southern coastal states and even into the old world, I have no doubt that many of these men likely brought a yeast culture with them from whence they came and if they didn’t they were very familiar with the methodology of capturing yeast and subsequently with its propagation, what I do know is that the Hop method was never used in Washington County amongst the German and English settlers.  The area now known as Campbellsburg and subsequently Cave River Valley and Henderson Park was home to many distillers and it is in this region that a neighborhood emerged known at the Hop neighborhood and later the Hop-Thompson located just south of Cave River Valley and just North of Campbellsburg (distiller Adam Brewer who I have spoken of before is buried here in the community “Hop-Thompson” cemetery along with a few of the souls who owned or operated the Clifty distillery we have written of often), the name is not a coincidence and further verifies our line of distillers not using the method.  As reported in Warder Stevens “Centennial History of Washington County”:

Joel Caulkins a New Yorker learning that this new country was full of still houses and that there was a great demand for hops decided to sell his farm back east taking pay in hops which he hauled to this new Eldorado but he failed to find a demand for his hops as he had expected and lost heavily in the venture He settled on section 24 in the fall of 1818 and owing to his hop transaction the neighborhood became known as the Hop District Another settlement nearby was known as Thompsons and when these two were consolidated they were ever after known as the Hop Thompson District and the cemetery a mile north of Campbellsburg bears that title

Owing to the number of still houses once located in this county there are in fact many useful “wild” strains of yeast still to be found amongst the flora and fauna and I have worked with some captured from Becks Mill and Cave River Valley.  My hope is to eventually reintroduce those strains into commercial production in coming years as yet another piece of our Washington County Distillation History is brought back to life.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: