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White Labs' Chris White Talks About Yeast, Bubbles and Education

Eno Sarris, September 04, 2013 -   
Once upon a time, San Diego wasn't a craft beer hot spot. There was no Stone, there was no AleSmith, there was no Ballast Point.
 
Well, there was a Home Brew Mart (not called Ballast Point back in the day), and that was important. Because it was at that homebrew mart that Chris White shopped for homebrewing materials. He made some friends that were on their way to becoming brewers -- Yuseff Cherney (now Head Brewer at Ballast Point) most famously -- and began to supply them with custom yeast strains.  He was working on industrial yeast strains in school anyway. That's how "a very active homebrew scene," as White put it, paired with a good store and some innovative souls, can put a city on a map.
 
White is humble about his place in the story, attributing it to a lot of timing and luck, and brushing off credit for turning San Diego into a beer Mecca. Even though it was in that city that he created the pre-eminent yeast lab in American craft beer -- White Labs.  "When people say, 'It's White Labs,' I say no, you need good brewers to have good beer. On the other hand, it's helpful to have a lab nearby, as a brewer."
 
But at this point, White Labs is a market leader in yeast. What was born of a simple idea early on -- moving from smack tabs and their 24-hour lag time to ready-to-pitch vials -- has evolved into something more. They now supply more than half of the yeast for American craft beer. White declines to put a number on it, citing accounting difficulties, but others in the industry estimate it around two-thirds to three-quarters of the market share.
 
They moved to a bigger location. They started shipping internationally. They stacked their library. They opened a tasting room and hired brewers to experiment with their yeast.
 
It's all part of the challenge to keep up with the innovation in the craft beer scene. It's not easy to discover new yeasts. Goose Island brewers told me that Matilda's wild yeast was harvested by opening up the brewery doors and allowing the wind to bring in what it would, but that's not an easy way to go -- "99% of what would be in the air wouldn't really ferment anyway, only a few organisms would actually get into the air and live. So that's a selection process of it's own," said White about trying to find yeast in today's air.
 
Adding to the current yeast library is a labor of love, but it's a struggle. "We buy some of our yeast from labs in europe, but most strains are domesticated by brewers and they have unique genetic material," White said. Those 'user-generated' or 'user-discovered' yeasts are deposited in yeast banks by breweries and White Labs has collected most of those. New ones created in tandem with their own customers are all stored cryogentically once their genetic code is documented.
 
It's an ongoing fight, to stay ahead of a market that is all about the next new beer. "You put a good challenge to us," White laughed, "we think about that all the time, we're still working on ideas for making new strains new blends and new recipes." White pointed to the new brewery and tasting room, which should help the company make new recipes to test their own product.
 
White also specifically mentioned a frankenstout that they brew. Complete with 96 yeast strains, the frankenstout changes every year since they re-use the yeast every time. White Labs is documenting the DNA with each brew, and watching to see how the yeasts interact genetically. White felt that in order to "stay relevant, we need to learn and teach and stay in touch with our customers." The frankenstout approach sounds like he's stayed in touch with his homebrew roots and understands his customers well.
 
Having made the jump from the amateurs to the pros himself, White understood why there's some national fretting about the possiblity of a bubble in the beer industry. "There's room for more breweries," White felt, but added that "it's probably a good idea to do a tasting room and do something small and control where your beer goes." Packaging and moving brews around makes it hard to keep the quality high, and the equipment needed to focus on that level of distribution is expensive. Starting small scale also means you can "retain more ownership" which can become important later. This approach -- local brewpubs in new markets -- sounds like something BeerGraphs can get behind.

There's a little more secret sauce to making the jump from home brewing to nanobrewing successfully, though. "As long as you are creative, take responsibilitiy, make the beer great, and don't blame the consumer or other things if it doesn't go well," then Chris White thinks your nanobrewery has a good shot.
 
And White Labs will certainly be around to help you brew that first brew. What will be the next hot yeast by then? White thinks it'll probably be something from outside the Saccharomyces family that has produced most ales and lagers to date. Maybe it'll be from the Brettanomyces family, one that "people aren't using right now," -- but no matter what, "it's going to take some creativity from the brewers," and that is a challenge that the labs and the brewers will undertake together. 
 
Who knows, it could be a familiar yeast used in a new way. Like, for example, the saison brewed with a Mexican lager yeast they served this author at the tasting room. (Don't worry, professional brewers out there, White was sure to point out that they aren't selling their beers to the market and do not want to compete with their customers.)
 
Whatever the new American craft yeast is, it'll probably be provided by Chris White and White Labs. And that fact was born of a group of homebrewers hanging out at the local Home Brew Mart.
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