How old were the vials? Does your LHBS store them properly? Obviously, you had two that contained only a small amount of yeast relative to the others. I've heard that WL is pretty good about replacing bum cultures if you mail in the empty vials, but I've never dealt with them myself.
Anyway, there are two main reasons to make a starter. One is to generate additional yeast and increase the pitching rate, but a 650 mL starter (without a stir plate) won't really grow much. The other is as a viability check, so that you know you have healthy yeast before pitching. So you definitely don't want to pitch a starter that hasn't shown any signs of activity.
I realize that probably isn't a very satisfying answer, but hopefully it well at least let you keep making good beer until you figure out where in the supply chain the yeast is being mishandled.
As far as #6, take a gravity reading and if it hasn't dropped, pitch more yeast. An active starter would be ideal.
Thanks for the quick and reasonable reply, sir. The vials came from Austin Homebrew Supply, so even though I haven't been to the facility, my guess is that they treat their stuff pretty kindly. I suppose it could have something to do with the shipping, but I've never had a fermentation lag like this in my long tenure (read: year and a half) of brewing. The best if used by dates were still a couple off so I figured they should be fine... especially because I treated myself when ordering and got an ice pack for the whole shebang.
The starters were to serve the viability curiosity and also to gain facility making them. I've hitherto pitched two vials into my batches but was feeling wasteful and newbish doing so. I guess my follow-up question to your response that you shouldn't pitch a sleepy looking starter is this: Can you hurt a batch by doing so? Other than the obvious opening to some kind of bug getting in to the game - it's weak wort and apparently weak yeast. I ask because I was an arts major (in Indiana no less). Zing!
And the answer is very satisfying because it rings of truth. Again, I appreciate your time. I've got another vial of 001 warming up for an afternoon starter cook-off.
My special lady friend was suggesting that I reach out to White Labs. I have the vials handy but hate shoving off blame onto anyone else when I could be culpable. Do bad vials and smack packs happen? I've been thinking of abandoning the vials if only because they're a pain to open due to CO2 and off-gassing, etc.
You're absolutely right. I have a crap-tonne of proven yeast at this point but, being a nervous brewer, don't know much about getting in there to harvest. That's not a very good answer but it's true. It's a hodgepodge of vessels in that little room, to boot. The three 6.5 gallon glass carboys have narrow necks that don't make for easy anything as I learned most recently when attempting to dry hop my Black Rebel Indian Ale (looked more like a dry rub with hops all over the outside of the carboy). I have a couple of 6 gallon better bottles with wider necks and blow-off tubes and then a 6 gallon glass carboy with a similarly narrow neck. Finally, there's a saison in there keeping watch over the young'uns but her yeast isn't of any help. If there's a safe way to get some of the good stuff out of the bottom of the happy carboys, my interest is piqued. I've made some pretty good beers in the past year as well as one or two that weren't so hot, but my skill set is still developing. For better or for worse, my ego and I frequently default to these classic lyrics: All I know is that I don't know nothin'.
Is 70 a bit warm? It seems like the best I can do and is better than when I was brewing and fermenting without any climate control at all.
Thanks, all. I appreciate the help!