San Diego, California
Unlike most of his fellow graduate students in biochemistry at University of California, San Diego, White knew he didn't want to become a physician. "I was really interested at the cellular level -- not so much the big, human level," he says. "Yeast cells were awesome, because they also made the beer I was making homebrew out of. So, to me, it was a perfect match."
Around the same time that White was working in a yeast lab studying how proteins are involved in heart disease, homebrewer friends began asking him to use his lab training to propagate brewer's yeast for them.
It led to him to founding his company more than 20 years ago in San Diego. White, 48, recalls thinking, "'Hey, I'll start this little company, make yeast for my friends at Home Brew Mart, and just have this little side business.' But then, that just grew and grew and grew, with more people asking for it. Eventually I said, 'I don't want to give this up, so let me see if I can make [the venture] a little bit bigger.'"
White's business did, indeed, get bigger. Over its first decade or so, White Labs grew 10 percent some years, 20 percent others. "But then 2009 came, and that big growth in the industry started happening, where I just noticed consumers were really noticing craft beer," says White. "And I'd been kind of waiting for that: where the consumers could demand to the bars, 'Hey, could you put these beers on?!'"
White Labs is now doubling its business every three to four years. "That's been the fun challenge to plan for," says White.
The company propagates over a hundred different yeast strains weekly for brewers across the United States -- and across the world. They include 86 "core strains," as well as other specialty batches that White Labs sells, plus specific strains which are propagated for client breweries. Its yeast catalog contains entries ranging from a California Ale Yeast to a French Saison Ale Yeast, from an Edinburgh Scottish Ale Yeast to a German Lager Yeast. Not only are there beer yeasts, distillers can purchase, for instance, a Tennessee Whiskey Yeast or Scotch Whisky Yeast, sake makers can utilize White Lab's Sake Yeast, and vintners can obtain a California Noir Wine Yeast or Champagne Yeast.
White Labs prepares its yeast in San Diego, Asheville, and Copenhagen, and the company has an R&D outpost in Davis, California. It sells yeast whipped up in San Diego through its Hong Kong office, as well. And White's company maintains a Boulder location, where Colorado brewers can pick up yeasts they order, try beer in White Labs' taproom that's been brewed at its San Diego location, and attend education classes related to yeast.
Another service: White Labs banks yeasts at its San Diego location for breweries desiring a backup.
Furthermore, the company offers an array of testing services. Its lab can measure the amount of diacetyl (a buttery flavor, which is hopefully undetectable in most styles of beer) using gas chromatography. Or the amount of carbohydrates in a beer, using its HPLC machine. It can test for the amount of gluten, if a brewery is, for instance, making a gluten-reduced beer for people with celiac disease. Or the amount of alcohol in a batch.
"A lot of small breweries are built without labs, and if you use traditional practices, you can do a pretty good job," says White. "But if you can't measure something, it's difficult to know that a problem might be out there. Or it might be a difference in batch to batch."
White Labs tests each batch of its yeast multiple times to ensure quality. It makes sure that no wild yeasts have infected the desired yeast as it's being grown, leading beer to display unwanted phenolic flavors.
When brewers asked White Labs to prepare yeast that could be used on the same day they acquired it, it led to a proprietary product: Pitchable Liquid Yeast. White says, "That was an innovation: That was something you couldn't get with liquid yeast, at the time."
Each package of its Pitchable Liquid Yeast contains a QC code, and a quote from Chris White: "You're holding the industry's first pitchable yeast grown and delivered in the same package. Introducing White Labs PurePitch, the result of a five-year journey to create the absolute purest yeast ever."
According to White, it was practically a disruptive technology: "It was a little bit of a shakeup, because liquid yeast, lab-brewed yeast, had always been sold for a pretty high price, maybe $250 for a small culture. And I was starting to sell it for a hundred-something for an amount that could brew a seven-barrel batch. It took a while for other people to, maybe, adjust to that . . . but it allowed a lot of craft breweries to use a lot of different yeast strains -- and directly pitching. So, hope it had a good impact."
White Labs makes its impact felt through education, as well. At a recent event at its Boulder location, Education & Engagement Curator Erik Fowler held a sensory exploration class for brewery employees and members of the Brewers Association. To highlight the different flavors that yeasts impart into beer, Fowler served beers made by White Labs. The brewers take one single batch of wort, and then divide that into separate fermentation tanks. They then pitch a different yeast into each. Fowler served IPAs, side by side, made with White Labs' California Ale Yeast, Pacific Ale Yeast, and Antwerp Ale Yeast. Fowler says it's a way to explore how yeast plays a "pivotal role" in, for instance, perceived bitterness.
"It was nice to see the same beer done with different yeast strains," says Brett Johnson, who works in Verboten Brewing's taproom in Loveland. "It's something you usually don't get to see, so that was very fascinating."
Fowler says White Labs' employees use "our knowledge, and what we learn, to better the industry -- and not just our company." He lauds White as "a very strong pillar in the development of craft beer in the U.S."
White, who received the 2013 Recognition Award from the American Homebrewers Association, says his greatest contribution to the proliferation of craft beer has been giving brewers the means to make better beers.
"The ability to get these different strains in liquid form at their highest purity (and the liquid also allows all the best flavors to come out of the yeast) makes the beers taste great," says White. "Of course, you need a great brewer: You can't just make a great beer with White Labs yeast and a poor brewer. But you combine White Labs yeast with a great brewer, and you get great beers."
Challenges: White says, "Fulfilling the order on the day the customer wants. I think that's one of our biggest challenges with making the variety of strains we do in liquid format."
Opportunities: Continued dynamic growth. "To be the producer for most of the liquid yeast used around the world for craft breweries," says White.
Needs: More time in the day. "Fortunately, it's a really passionate industry," says White. "It would be nice if we could have a bigger staff and work on all the little projects we want to work on. But we still try to be patient and grow as slow as possible, but as fast as possible to meet the needs. We could use a lot of things: more time, more money, more people."