Beer and Food: Unrequited Love

In the past, on the frontier between beer and bread lay (beer) yeast. It was once extensively used in bread making, in Britain and cultures derived therefrom, but also for long periods in Belgium, France, and elsewhere (Germany for a time).

Scooped from a prior ferment, beer yeast found its way into the town and village loaf. Its use, antique as it may sound, was a first revolution in bread making as identified by Elizabeth David in her classic 1977 English Bread and Yeast Cookery.

A second revolution was the Vienna steam baking system in the early 19th century. The third was the origination of compressed (or cake) yeast, predecessor to modern dried yeast.

Prior to use of ale barm, bread ancestrally was baked by the spontaneous leaven system. This could result in very large loaves with a heavy crust, reaching 16 lb in France.*The taste had a tang from lactic acid bacteria in the “old dough” ferments.

The sour taste, familiar in the modern sourdough form, was not always liked. It was considered less digestible and of coarser flavour than light, airy loaves raised by ale yeast.

Still, when lager beer became dominant in large parts of the Continent in the 19th century, its yeast proved less satisfactory for this purpose. The loaves were too damp and dense, the yeast taking too long to work, not surprising given the properties in brewing.



This stimulated the development of compressed yeast in central Europe, which finally reached Britain, called there “German yeast”.

But ale yeast too had a disadvantage: bitterness from hops. The beer type seemed little to matter, except (this from another source) that porter yeast was the least liked, due to the difficulty of removing the bitterness.

Beer yeast was washed carefully in water to reduce this effect as David explains, but it was a laborious and chancy process.

The type of hops used in brewing when ale yeast dominated in bakeries seemed to matter little, either. Whatever the type, just as for the type of beer, the bread had a slight twang from the hops.

The development of the later forms of yeast noted obviated this problem.

Today, on the frontier between the beer and bread lands, taking bread metaphorically for all food, a Berlin wall governs interchanges. And few are allowed from Beer Territory to Foodland except, to be sure, as an accompaniment to food, but that’s not really the same thing.

The ingredients of beer, especially malt, find use in baking and confectionary, but that’s not the same thing either. The fact is beer as an ingredient in cooking, with some limited exceptions as I discussed previously, is rare on the ground.

And this is to keep out the bitter taste in our daily staples. A few vegetables have a natural bitterness, kale, arugula, Brussels sprouts, from natural compounds. These are hardly the most popular vegetables in the food world, despite the latter-day fashion for kale.

The lemon of course is bitter, or bitter-sour, but is never eaten alone as Trini Lopez famously sang.

Beer is more tolerant than food in this respect. The guards Beerland appoints at the Berlin wall – beer tastemakers in their homeland – allow ingress more liberally.

A glance at a modern beer shelf shows use of chocolate, maple syrup, confectionary in general, even bacon, garlic, and other foods. Spices associated with food often appear in beer. Wine too sometimes, often via the effects of a wine barrel.

Rarely does it work the other way. Foodland and its ally Winenation, gazing at Beerland over the frontier, are more picky.

Beer is equable. Yet I think, it pines for a closer relationship.

*Extra-large loaves with a heavy crust resulted in a relatively fresh crumb for a week. This precluded need to bake more often. Smaller breads with thin crust needed daily baking, which the arrival of professionalized baking in France facilitated. David writes to this day, the crumb of bread is emblematic in Britain. In France, the reverse.


7 thoughts on “Beer and Food: Unrequited Love”

  1. When the epidemic hit in 2020 and yeast pretty much disappeared from the store, I started baking bread with yeast recovered from my homebrew fermentor. It was ale yeast, probably Dusseldorf Alt. When first recovered, it was far too bitter to make a good loaf. I mixed it with flour and water and let it propagate, then pulled out a small amount and propagated again. After 3 rounds, the bitter flavor was gone and the yeast made very nice bread. In each batch, I put in about a half pint of the mix, then added new flour and water to the starter to maintain it. The result: rich flavor, nice open texture, with a very slight tang. Not nearly as sour as sourdough culture. I kept that culture going for over a year, producing many batches of bread. Not difficult at all.

  2. Gary,
    You are correct that the yeast brick we were shown was compressed cake (also refrigerated at the time). The bakery was a regular stop for us on the way home from visits to Manhattan. The little retail counter fronted a commercial rye bread bakery in back. That particular day the proprietor (presumably an Erde son or grandson) was in front. He first showed us photos of his most recent birding expedition, and then took us into the bakery for a quick look at the operation. I may have told him I was a homebrewer, which prompted a yeast discussion.

    I neglected to mention that when we discovered Ritterbrau in 1970, the dark draft was offered in the bar as well as the light. It was definitely good, but probably wasn’t better than the imported Munich dunkels at the time.

  3. Gary,

    Interesting posts, as always, provoked some memories.

    I believe brewers yeast can readily be used for baking. Brewers yeast at large breweries and at beer yeast manufacturers is propagated without contact with hops, and is pure culture (which not might be the case for some bakers yeast). Anheuser Busch marketed yeast starting during prohibition ( The link presupposes that the yeast was to be used for homebrew, but, considering the package size, commercial baking was probably a target. In about 1980 my wife and I were given an informal tour of Mosha’s Bread (Morris Erde, Inc., of Brooklyn). We were shown a brick (about 1 lb. size, I think) of Budweiser yeast, packaged similar to the one in the link above.

    Your previous post on Dortmunder beer (DAB specifically) prompted another memory. In the early 70s, we discovered Dortmunder Ritterbrau at a quiet bar/restaurant near our apartment in San Diego. It was our favorite German import at that time.

    • Arnold thanks again. The development of compressed yeast predated Hanson’s pure yeast culture, at a time when yeasting back was still used to harvest yeast for a succeeding brew. The later developments for brewers yeast technology clearly had an advantage over the old scooped yeast, but I think by then likely compressed yeast, which was continually improved from inception, was established in the baking market.

      That brick of Budweiser yeast sounds a form of compressed yeast perhaps? Where it still retains considerable water. It is still generally considered superior for baking than dried yeast I understand.


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