What are the effects of underpitching your beer?
We have an answer for over pitching, I think we need the complete set.
Yeast produce different flavors during the various stages of their lifecycle. Underpitching lengthens their "growth" phase (maybe a better name is "division" or "budding"). The bulk of a beer's esters are produced during this initial stage, so extending this part of the lifecycle increases this sometimes undesirable quality.
Yeast need oxygen to bud. A homebrewer can usually dissolve enough oxygen into wort to facilitate four buddings. Once out of oxygen yeast begin consuming sugars. In this phase the yeast stores energy to sustain it during hibernation. Yeast will begin consuming the simple sugars moving to the more complex molecules as the easy to digest food diminishes. Once it is full of stored energy the cell shuts down and flocculates.
Underpitching can introduce an insufficient amount of yeast to entirely consume the entirety of the beer's fermentables. Your fermentation may not finish, or there could be enough food for an infection to take hold.
Use Jamil's pitching rate calculator to avoid the problem.
Interview with Dave Logsdon (of WYeast) on April 5, 2007 BBR
I found out that I've been drastically underpitching my first few batches. I'm fairly ready to blame my under-attenuated beers on this. Here's why:
I started with a dry yeast pack (Danstar Nottingham Ale) back when I was just a kid and didn't know anything... read: December. I pitched direct into the wort and got 70% apparent attenuation. That batch had one problem though: the dreaded banana flavor, which didn't actually emerge until after bottle conditioning.
That led me to believe that it was the yeast that was the culprit for the banana flavor. I switched to Wyeast smack packs, all purchased from the LHBS, and believed the printing on the pack that it was good for pitching one five-gallon batch up to 1.050 OG. I think my pitch rates went down significantly because of this.
This led me to a series of under-attenuated beers. Strangely, I've had one beer that went over the attenuation range for its yeast (a maibock fermented with Cry Havoc). The fact that this came from a different supplier (White Labs) and was maybe fresher, made me think that under-pitching was a problem. Accordingly, I've edited my answer to the yeast re-use question to recommend more slurry and shorter storage.
More ester formation. This could be good in a Belgian beer where you want to accentuate the yeast-derived flavors, or bad such as in the case of lagers. Generally it's best to pitch the right amount of yeast and control ester production with fermentation temperature.