Chris White is one of the top innovators in the field of beer making – known by everyone in the industry, but few outside of brewing circles. The founder of White Labs, White become his industry's hitmaker by providing craft brewers, homebrewers, distillers, and winemakers with yeast since 1995. Over the last two years, White, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from U.C. San Diego, has supplied yeast for exactly half of the Great American Beer Festival's medal winners.
A homebrewer himself, White started making different yeast strains – which convert fermentable sugars into alcohol and heavily influence flavor – for fun in graduate school. His original idea was to supply homebrewing stores with various yeast strains, but that quickly changed as craft brewing began to proliferate beyond San Diego, where he still lives. "I was on a cross-country sales trip to Atlanta and stopped into smaller breweries along the way," White recalls. "A lot of those same breweries are still customers. It was very grassroots, brewery by brewery."
Today, the company is bursting at the seams, doubling in size every few years with 30 to 40 percent year-over-year revenue growth during the last three. It stores more than 500 different yeast strains in a deep freezer kept at -80 degrees Celsius, and regularly manufactures a core of 82 strains each week along with another three-dozen proprietary yeasts belonging to specific craft breweries. Its customers include local heavyweights like Ballast Point, Green Flash, and Stone Brewing.
"There's not a big competitor in front of us," White says. "The big beer brands all do it in-house."
A visit to White Labs is the highlight of any beer-soaked visit to San Diego because it provides drinkers with a peek into White's laboratory, where he operates a tasting room with a 32-tap, three-cask system. "Brewers don't talk about yeast with consumers much," White says. "We haven't figured out how to talk about it without sounding gross. But the choice of yeast influences the flavor of the beer. Brewers think about it as much as malt and hops."
White Labs switches out the taps every day, alternating small batches of suds brewed on-site that can be compared side-by-side. (For example: five Ballast Point beers brewed in exactly the same way, but with five different yeast strains.) It's a layer rarely experienced by the casual beer drinker, yet one that is increasingly sought after.
"There's this big element of microbiology in brewing," says White. "People never used to care, but now they're coming in and asking for tours."
More Information: The tasting room is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 8pm. Ballast Point and Green Flash, two of San Diego’s first names in brewing, are both within five miles.