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Very simply, what is the difference in pitching 100 billion cells into a 1L starter and into a 2, 3, 4L starter of, say 1.040 OG?

I understand the logic with a 5.5 gallon batch of beer: you want to pitch enough active, healthy cells TO MAKE GOOD BEER. Underpitching can cause unwanted esters, phenols, and open up the chance of infection.

However, as we don't care about the quality of the 'beer' made with a starter, but do care about the number of cells we are getting, why does it matter if the yeast are going to multiply based on their environment (simply, how much food there is for them).

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There are three main reasons for stepping up:

  1. having too much medium and too little yeast increases the risk of contamination considerably.
  2. a large quantity of medium causes the first few generations of yeast to bud rapidly, resulting in lots of scar tissue which functions poorly as a membrane.
  3. It allows the strength of the wort to start out low and gradually increase. The lower strength wort (1.025-1.030) helps reduce osmotic stresses on the yeast, resulting in a more vital population.

When making a starter, there is always some level of contamination (bacteria, wild yeast). If the number of yeast cells is low, the ratio of contaminants to brewers yeast will be higher, possibly to a point where you cultivate significant quantities of these. By keeping the starter in proportion to the amount pitched, the level of contaminants is lower and so you get fewer contaminants in the produced wort.

The second point is about how yeast reacts according to the volume of the medium. With a small population of yeast and a large quantity of medium, the initial generations bud rapidly and continually. Cell bud many times, creating lots of budding "scars" on the cell wall. These scars prevent efficient transfer of nutrients and waste products in an out of the cell, leading to a lower quality population. By using a suitable volume (not too large) the yeast bud less often and have a healthier cell membrane as a result. In other words, the aim is to get the yeast to bud at a healthy rate, but not to go into overdrive.

Another reason to "step up" is if you want to increase the number of cells without using a larger vessel. E.g. a 2 liter starter may have 200 billion cells. Decanting the spent wort and pitching another liter may take this up to 300 billion cells, effectively giving a 3 liter starter in a 2 liter vessel. (In practice, it's not linear because the yeast/volume ratio is much higher, causing propagation rates to slow, but you can bump up the count to some degree by decanting and adding fresh wort.) I don't consider this stepping up in the usual sense.

Yeast propagation and maintainance describes stepping up and why it is benecifial.

During yeast propagation it is important to keep the yeast growing exponentially. Diluting the yeast out too far will slow down their growth and give bacteria a chance to overtake the culture. Since bacteria can grow as much as 6 times faster than yeast (the average doubling time for a bacterium is 20 minutes!), it is important to keep yeast growing rapidly. If more than 1 or 2 liters of starter are required, it is best to do more than one step-up. In most cases it is best to do a 500 ml intermediate starter and after 1-2 days step this up to as much as 1-2 gallons. In each case the yeast should reach saturation in 24-48 hours. Figure 4 outlines the two different propagation strategies.

The same page states ideal step up ratios between 4-10 fold for the final generations of yeast. Stepping up in larger volumes reduces attenuation as the efficiency of maltose and maltriose metabolization is reduced, leading to sweeter finishes. So, stepping up from a 10ml slant, a 50 fold increase is ok, since these are only the initial generations, and also represent only a small percentage of the final yeast population, but as the starter volume approaches the final volume desired, step ups should be smaller.

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Just to be clear, the stepping up is from 10ml slant to 250-500ml, then 500ml to 2-4 liters. Step-ups from a pitchable vial aren't necessary. –  mdma Aug 20 '12 at 19:44
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I think you answered your own question. A larger starter will grow more yeast. BTW, 1.o52 is a lot higher than the recommend gravity for starters. 1.035-40 works better to produce healthy yeast.

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right, but why do you need to do it in stages (ie make a 1L starter, decant, then make a 2L starter and pitch, etc. etc. repeat, repeat) –  Pietro Aug 20 '12 at 15:25
    
You don't. There may not be enough yeast in a vial for 5 gal., but there's plenty to go right into 3 qt. I do it all the time with great results. IMO, stepping from 1 L to 2L, for example, is not only a waste of time but a potential source of infection. –  Denny Conn Aug 20 '12 at 18:20
    
I agree. A step up from 1-2l with a so-called pitchable vial is unnecessary - jump right in with 2l. In fact, with that much yeast the lower initial volume of 1l will probably reduce cell count rather than increase it compared to jumping right in with 2l or more. –  mdma Aug 20 '12 at 19:33
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If you're an AHA member, you can hear a seminar given by Neva Parker of WhiteLabs at this year's NHC. She addressed yeast starter volumes as part of her presentation. It's at homebrewersassociation.org/attachments/presentations/audio/2012/… –  Denny Conn Aug 20 '12 at 21:36
    
Thanks for the link. Seems to be generally available. –  mdma Aug 21 '12 at 23:21
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There's a "sweet spot" in the ratio of starter size to yeast cell count that will result in the optimal conditions for producing the most additional yeast cells. Too small, and you won't get much cell growth, but you will have well-fed yeast. Too big, and you'll have beer.

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