Yeast Starter -Do you use one or not and Why?

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Fruit "Wine" Maker
Aug 29, 2015
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Northwest Arkansas
As with many topics on this site, there are certainly a wide variety of methods people use to get their fermentation started.
Perhaps a little sharing of methods might help those beginners figure out what approach they want to use. I think sharing your methods and your reasoning, beyond "It works" might be appreciated by beginners. I know that it would have been nice for me when I was getting started, to have some ideas laid out before starting my first wine batch. To date I've had a 'hard start' for 3 batches and all of those were in the winter in a room where the temperature was in mid-to-low 60s. In all cases the yeast specifications indicated that those temps were fine.

As I have seen posted here there seem to be pretty much two basic approaches:

1) Sprinkle the dry (Or liquid) yeast directly on the top of the wine must
2) Prepare a starter solution to re-hydrate the yeast before adding it to the wine must

There are probably variations to the basic methods. Some seem pretty involved but it's hard to argue with any approach if it consistently works.

I hope that some people with a lot of experience will chip in here and help provide their methods and rationale behind it.

Personally my approach has evolved into a very slight variation of a basic version of the Re-Hydrate before pitching.

My reason for this approach: The reason I decided to go with a starter was simply looking at what my mother and most bakers do with their yeast. In most cases the yeast is mixed briefly in warm water then added to the dough AND allowed to rise in a warm oven to get the dough to rise. With breads and pastries the process is extremely fast compared to what we experience with wine making but then they are not creating as much alcohol as we do with wine. (Maybe those alcohol vapors from the bread are what I enjoyed so much growing up. )

In any case I figure helping our wine yeast to wake up and multiply can only help a wine ferment off to a good start. The only time I can think when it might not be good is with a wine where you want a long drawn out fermentation process.

My yeast starter approach:
2 oz of filtered (Not distilled) water heated for 25 seconds
1 oz of wine must added to the heated water
1/16 tsp of Fermaid - K (Not using this as designed but I have a 4 oz container of it so...)
1/8 tsp Yeast Nutrient
Mix the ingredients and then pour back and forth between containers until mix is just warm (100-105 degrees)
Add the yeast, stir and then cover loosely for 15-60 mins (I get distracted sometimes so I have hit that 60 minute mark and beyond with no problems)

This is a picture of a yeast starter I prepared today for a batch of Blueberry wine. This was taken after the starter had set for no more than 15 minutes. Clearly re-hydration has happened. The starter had a strong yeast smell to it. This is an 8oz (1/2 pint container) This morning (17 hours after pitching) the fermentation is well underway with plenty of foam in evidence and that wonderful smell of a all out fermentation.

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I used to rehydrate yeast, had more failures than successes. I have since starting to sprinkle it on top and spritzing it with filtered water. Never had a failure yet. I’m assuming I was getting the water too hot.
I usually get my water warm to the wrist, as in if I pour some drops on my wrist, it feels neither warm nor cold, near body temp. Then draw off about 2-4 Oz, add some Fermaid - K, some sugar (I don't measure either, maybe a pinch or so), then add my yeast. After 10-15 minutes, I add a pinch or two of sugar, wait for a bit more and then pitch. Fermentation generally takes off in under 12 hours.
1. I do the sprinkle method for everything that is straight juice related and mostly juice. Temps of must ranging from 50's to 80's.

2. I re-hydrate for the all grape and all fruit batches just following manufacturer's instructions. Usually using tap water. Agitate water first to diminish chlorine.

So far 5 years no failed starts.

With both scenarios I add yeast nutrients to must, usually Fermaid O
I rehydrate w/ grapes. With juice or kits, I tend to just sprinkle and pray. No rhyme or reason, just the way I seem to do it.
I follow instructions - for most traditional Saccharomyces yeast, 110 degree GoFerm, once cooled to 104 add the yeast, then slowly add must until your starter is within 18 degrees of your must temp. I don't add Ferm-K until the end of the lag phase (6 to 12 hours following the yeast add). Half of the Ferm-K then the other half when you are 1/3 of the way through your fermentation.
I think if you check out the spec sheets published by the yeast labs it is contra-indicated to add any nutrients other than something like Go-Ferm before the yeast has been rehydrated and before they are beginning to ferment. There are compounds in the nutrients that are toxic to the yeast as the cells build and repair cell walls so adding Fermaid K or O and the like to the rehydrating solution is killing a significant proportion of the cells in your starter.
I rehydrate per manufacturer ( lavin ) with go ferm as a minimum. After 20-30 minutes I usually add a shot of honey and some water and a thief full of must after final must sg test. And wait till it gets fizzy to pitch. Sometimes 2 hrs some times 8 hrs.
I'm just a stubborn old f**t whose been doing this for 46 years. I sprinkle, usually Premier Cuvee. When I make Cranberry, I often have to add a second pack, but beside that, I've never had a batch not ferment out. BTW, when I make bread, I add the dry yeast to the mixture!
A few years ago, I did an experiment with two different kits that I was starting at the same time. On the first kit, I hydrated the yeast per the yeast manufactures instructions. Then, I sprinkled the yeast over the top of the must for the second kit. There was no noticeable difference as both batches began active fermentation at about the same time.

Since that experiment, I've just sprinkled the yeast over the top of the must with good fermentation result.
I have to admit that initially I just used the "Sprinkle and Stir" method. That was until I had a few slow starting or non-starting ferments in both cool conditions (Room temp below 70) and warm temps.
I resorted to the starter method after a couple of tries yielded very good results. Here lately my batches with a starter have fermented rapidly including one complete from a starting of SG of 1.090 to .992 in 72 hours. It is also helpful to me to use with yeast that may be past it's Best By date. While yeast kept in cold storage (fridge) should keep at least that long, I figure why take a chance. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare it. I do other things while it re-hydrates, (Take Final "Pre-ferement SG and pH readings) and I have definitive positive signs that the yeast should be viable. Obviously either method works. As to messing up a starter, I just do as cmason1957 and check the temp with my skin before pitching the yeast. Even using Fermaid K has not killed off enough yeast cells to prevent rapid starts to all my ferments. Of course I may be proven wrong next time bu so far the Yeast Starter batches have perform impressively every time and If you are making a delicate wine like Watermelon, time is your enemy, a fast start is the only way to go.

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