Beer Run

White Labs, a leading supplier of beer yeasts, to open a retail shop in Davis

Chris White, the founder of White Labs, first became interested in the science of yeast for beer as an undergrad at UC Davis.
Chris White, the founder of White Labs, first became interested in the science of yeast for beer as an undergrad at UC Davis. Courtesy of White Labs

Several months ago, while enjoying a beer at Sudwerk Brewing’s terrific Dock Store tasting room, I met a friendly, unassuming man named Chris White. Brewing geeks will immediately recognize the name as one the great innovators of yeast for beer. His White Labs is headquartered in San Diego.

Back then, White told me he was poised to open a branch of his business in Davis. Now that time has come. White Labs will hire two people to run the operation and start producing yeast there in November. The location will evolve into a place for yeast sales in the months ahead. For now, the company is selling some of its yeast cultures through the Dock Store.

I recently caught up with White again. He has kept a small office in Davis since 2009, mostly for teaching and working with Sudwerk. He has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from UC Davis and a Ph.D from UC San Diego. He took a beer class as an elective while at Davis and was soon digging deeper into the science of it all. It never stopped.

“I was interested in the biochemistry of beer,” he said. “It was a fun class, and I learned a lot. I continued on my path in biochemistry, but I did start home-brewing.”

At grad school in San Diego, he took a home-brewing class and soon became friends with a young man named Yusef Cherney and several others who were into beer. White initially started making yeast to make proteins for his scholarly research.

“As I was making better beer, I was making better yeast. By the time I was done with graduate school, I didn’t want to give that up.”

He had some lucrative job offers, but he decided to do his own thing, officially launching White Labs in 1995. Cherney went on to co-found Ballast Point, now a renowned craft brewery best known for its flagship IPA, Sculpin.

With more than 500 yeast strains in its yeast bank, White Labs is the largest supplier of brewing yeast cultures in the U.S., working with most of the craft breweries and well known to many home brewers.

Despite his great success, White believes yeast is often the forgotten ingredient in beer. It’s crucial, powerful and complex. But when you hear discussions among craft beer drinkers, especially newer ones, it’s often about hops. They’re tasting all these flavors, and they almost always connect them to hops. Yes, hops are in the spotlight these days, and deservedly so, but maybe it’s time yeast gets its due.

“People don’t talk about yeast. It can sound kinda weird,” White said. “Brewers have stayed away from it even though it gives these major characteristics of beer.”

I asked Sudwerk brewmaster Mike Hutson and 2013 national home-brewing champ Annie Johnson to weigh in.

“I would attribute one-third of beer’s flavor to yeast,” said Johnson, who is also a certified beer judge. “It’s really important to do your homework and use the right type of yeast for the style of beer you’re brewing.”

“Yeast typically gets credited with contributing alcohol and CO2 to beer,” said Huston, who is a microbiologist by training. “But a big third component is flavor compounds and aromas.” For instance, those clove and banana flavors your palate picks up when you enjoy a hefeweizen aren’t spices added in the brewing. That’s the yeast expressing itself in the beer.

Hutson says Sudwerk does many experiments with yeast, often with profound results. For instance, he can make a batch of beer and split it in half, then “pitch” each batch with two yeasts that differ only slightly, “and you wind up with two very different beers. Both would be delicious, but if you put the two beers in front of someone, he would say there is no way they are the same beer,” the brewmaster explained.

That kind of experimentation led to Sudwerk’s saison. “What I found was a combination of two of White Labs’ yeasts in tandem during fermentation. We’re really happy with what we came up with.”

So the next time you’re tasting beer, you’ll fit right in when you talk about hop varieties, bitterness and those notes of pine and citrus. But if you want to take the discussion – and perhaps your understanding – to the next level, now is the time to pull yeast into the equation and give this under-appreciated ingredient its due.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

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