As any homebrewer knows, sometimes things go wrong. And when they do, it can be tough to identify exactly what the problem was. Was there too much light? Was the temperature unstable? Did I sanitise everything properly?
I know for my first few batches I had no clue what had gone wrong, probably because nothing had gone right. Once they start limiting errors, many brewers start keeping rigorous notes on their process to help them eliminate imperfections and make adjustments. The scientific method is smart. But it overlooks one major factor: yeast, the thing responsible for making beer into beer, is a living organism. And like all living organisms, it has complex needs, desires, and emotions (‘real scientists’ may dispute this, of course).
Which is why I started yelling at my yeast.
Gjærkauk, literally meaning ‘yeast scream’ is a brewing tradition with roots in Norway, Finland and Estonia, and parts of Eastern Europe. It is said to make the beer strong and scare away the evil spirits that would infect the brew. A beer made with a Gjærkauk will bring joy and good tidings to those who drink it.
It’s far from the most absurd tradition when it comes to protecting beer. Brewing is complicated, and our ancestors often worked with inexact information. The ancient Egyptians would hang coriander on their doors to ward off the evil spirits. Many European breweries had gargoyles to protect them. KC Nanobrew in Kansas City has one of their brewers perform the ‘truffle shuffle’ before each batch to keep away those pesky ghouls.
Like many superstitions, very few people believe the scream has any influence on whatever mystical creatures may be floating around, but it’s part of the process and a fun tradition. It costs nothing and you get to let out a bit of emotion as you brew.
The scream itself can vary. One video shows Norweigan farmers chanting an ‘oi, oi, oi’, sounding more like they were cheering the yeast on, wishing it well. Alternatively, some Latvian brewers chant a sort of prayer, and tradition dictates that a woman should always do the screaming.
But does it actually work?
I decided to give it a try. On brew day I made two identical batches of a New Zealand IPA recipe which had been working well for me – plenty of Nelson Sauvin and Motueka hops, with a big handful of Wai-iti for dryhopping. Batch one was my control, I pitched the yeast silently but hopefully, then left it to work its magic.
For batch two, I attempted my first ever Gjærkauk. I opted against chanting anything specific, and just went with a belly roar. I was in a concrete stairwell when I pitched my yeast, which sent my yell bouncing and echoing around, making me sound a lot scarier than I actually am. Any ghosts nearby would surely have been sent packing. In fact, I got so into my yell that I may have got a little spittle in the fermenter. I crossed my fingers and hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
I gave it two weeks in the fermenter, then two weeks in the bottle and came back for the test. Batch one had turned out brilliantly, probably the best brew I’ve ever managed. It was so good I didn’t want to share it.
There’s a sliding scale for how much I am willing to share my brews. The better it is, the more I want to show it off and pass it around for the approval of friends and family. But if it gets too good, suddenly I’m no longer OK with giving it away. It’s a valuable commodity, and I want it all to myself.
Batch two was almost identical to batch one. This was unsurprising, considering they had literally the exact same recipe and conditions and the only difference was that I yelled at this one. So, in some ways you could say that the Gjærkauk didn’t work.
But then I realised that’s not exactly true.
While my screaming hadn’t made any difference to the taste of the brews, a Gjærkauk isn’t always about the taste, it’s about the experience. It is said to bring joy to those who drink. And then I realised that I had made twice as much homebrew as I usually do, so I had an extra 20 litres to share with my friends.
The Gjærkauk had given me an extra 20 litres of beer to enjoy on a sunny day, and plenty extra so that everyone around me could have a bottle or two. It brought me a whole bunch of joy.
When you prep your next batch of brew I highly recommend a hearty Gjærkauk. It’s a great outlet for any pent up anger, you can get the kids involved, and who knows, maybe it does help keep those ghosts at a safe distance.