The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Origins of S.F. Sour Dough...

ClassicAles's picture

Origins of S.F. Sour Dough...

Hello All;

Wanted to stop in and introduce myself. I've been a craft brewer (home brewer) for several years now and tend to be on the teckie geekie side of things. I've brewed many styles of beer and like the hobby. Why am I telling you this? It all has to do with the history of sour dough yeast and where the San Francisco taste was born.

You see, a style of beer known as "Steam Beer" which is kept alive thru the diligent marketing of Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing uses a very unique beer yeast. This yeast is unlike any other in the brewing industry. It has a flavor profile that fits uniquely between the classic lager and ale yeasts of which there are literally dozens in commercial use world wide. But there is only ONE San Francisco brewing yeast! Now imagine yourself 150 years ago in S.F. and you are a commercial bakery and you use a lot of yeast to bake.... Where are you going to get yeast.... From the bakery supply store or the brewery down the street! I think you'll agree that back then, they didn't know what was going on with the yeast, they just know that it made the beer... ah hum... the bread taste great! And the brewery was glad to sell or give it away because believe me... when you brew beer, you produce a HUGE amount of yeast in the fermentor.

When German brewers came to America and migrated to the west coast during the gold rush, they naturally took their 'old world' skills with them. One of these skills was brewing beers. The problem was, they had no ice caves in which to "lager" (a german word for 'store cold') their beers. As a result they did the best they could with the yeast they had carried half way around the world. Over the decades this yeast evolved to produce the classic BOLD tastes that are associated with Anchor Steam Beer. I've used this yeast, fresh from the yeast banks and using the standard recipes for french bread have produced some very fine 'sour dough' breads. They taste way better than the "bakers yeast" you'd use in the recipe and produce that famous 'west coast' taste that everyone loves.

You can acquire this yeast, use yeast ranching techniques that are easy to find on the web, and keep the yeast culture for months or years and have San Francisco Sour Dough bread anytime  you want without having to keep a starter that will itself evolve and mutate into something else over time.

Go to and look for WL-810 San Francisco Lager Yeast or go to and look for 2112 California Lager yeast. These are the same yeasts, and are "banked" for commercial purposes. You will be amazed at the taste if you follow the directions for the bread, but use these liquid yeasts (yes they ARE that fresh) to make the starter/sponge. And depending on where you live, you can order from almost any homebrewing supply house on the web. A couple I've used that have very fresh stocks are and

Enjoy and just remember.... Beer is known as 'liquid bread' for a very good reason.... ;-)

Try it.... You'll like it!


ClassicAles - Artisan Brewer and Baker

rockfish42's picture

The native SF sourdough yeast is candida milleri, this yeast is incapable of metabolizing maltose the dominant sugar found in beer wort. While I have no doubt that you can produce bread with the CC lager yeast, the reverse is not always true. The main feature of using the SF lager yeasts that are available is that they maintain lager characteristics at higher temperatures than other strains. I have seen examples of local home brewers in the bay area making beer with their sourdough cultures, my best guess is that their particular culture's primary yeast is not what is considered the SF culture.  There has been extensive research on sourdough

ClassicAles's picture

I do believe the c. milleri is the predominant metabolizer today, but the point of my post was to show the evolution, thus the origination of the source of the wonderful taste we all now appreciate and "label" as S.F. sourdough. I LOVE the stuff and when I decide to recreate the taste, which is all my taste buds understand, being disconnected from my knowlegde of the subject, I use the CC lager to recreate the origins of the SF sourdough bread. Anyone is free to 'chase' the taste in their own way, but as for me, I like to think that common sense was the driving force of over a century ago not the science behind the sensations.

Food, bread in particular, is a great avenue to pursue science and sometimes the easiest way to really appreciate the current state of the science is to 'reverse engineer' the processes. Many people can recreate a taste and if all that's available to the pallet is the product then the process that produces the results are in many cases patentable. My point is this, when time and consisitancy is of concern, you can drag out that starter, hoping that it hasn't mutated into something other than the "true" S.F. sourdough or you can follow a proceedure with controlled materials and processes and end up with the very same results thus removing the variables that always happen over time.

Enjoyed the input.... I am an engineer by trade, technician by style, and artisan by choice.

Long live the artisan approach for without it, the engineering would be boring, and the technical approach would be mundane.

Please forgive the spelling errors (if any) this was fired off without spellcheck and I'm enjoying another of my numerous pleasures..... The finest Ky. Bourbon made. BuffaloTrace

ClassicAles said that.....

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

First of all, Welcome to TFL! 

It wouldn't surprise me if the Ancient San Fancisco Baker just walked down the street, took a bucket of fresh clowdy beer, brewing in vats, and added it to his dough.  The daily process of saving a bit of the dough for the next batch would have saved making the trip down the street but since the baker and the brewer were buddies (or were family members or even business partners) they kept up their mutual exchange.  After all, it was an easy step for the baker just to add CC lager to meet changing supply and demand.  Maybe still done today?

Maybe this is this "secret" yeast, lurking in the vat (or local starters) that make some SF Sourdoughs exceptional.   Maybe it has a role in part of the process so that the SF baker has it easier to replicate SF lactobacteria.  After all, there are many processes and changes, subtle steps in the chemistry and microbiology that we know so little about.  Keeping a sd that contained some CC lager yeasts might prove more stable than our fresh new starters that may not contain it. 

So, ClassicAles, it's easier just to add the SF CC lager yeast to the dough and just let the beasties sort things out to make SF sourdough bread?  Interesting.  Another source for  that SF flavor.  Sounds like a practical way of getting lots of sourdough.  Do you add any other yeast strains?


Pain Partout's picture
Pain Partout

I find your input very interesting,  ClassicAles.  Don't know the Genus and species of the yeasts used in either ale and bread, but I can readily see that a common "metabolizing source" could have been originally used in both bread and beer/ale.   I have never been able to duplicate the S.F. "sour complex" that we originally tasted in good Pacific Slope breads.  Worth looking into.  Welcome to the site.