Congrats!! My oldest is off to LSU in the fall, middle is on to highschool and my daughter is on to middle school, there is not enough barley wine to keep me sane through all this!
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I'm all for supporting local, you're lucky, nice fresh yeast:)IMO/IME, if your beer is 1.040 or less and the yeast is fresh no need for a starter.
Now, you can certainly just pitch a pack and most likely your beer will ferment but you might encounter issues such as off flavors or stalls/stuck fermentations due to stressed yeast.
I make starters for appropriate pitch rate for every beer I brew with liquid yeast, it's just good process.
As Jim mentioned, for lagers you will definitely need a starter due to the needed higher pitch rates.
As for one being better than the other, I've found both manufacturers to produce very good products and have no loyalty to one over the other, they both perform well, strain selection not being counted.
All of this with one minor exception...I prefer Wyeast, but mainly because it's produced near me.
That is odd. I can't imagine why that would be because of the sap but who knows!?it is odd and I'm not sure why either since it fermented out perfectly fine and every day corn sugar was used to prime with the proper amount. One of those odd brewing quirks....
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I see two possible issues. Sanitation and DME clumps.i agree, it will certainly clump up big time, I'd boil it up in the smallest amount of water possible, cool and add it