Of the four major components of beer – Water, hops, malt, yeast – the latter is the least sexy, at least when seen through the prism of most beer consumers. Sure, some in the know will comment on what a certain yeast does, but understanding yeast is something of an abstraction. Search through beer websites, message boards, and reviews and a hierarchy of beer ingredients presents itself – and it’s not yeast at the top.
There’s post after post lauding the flavors of specific hops and questions about which beers contain a certain combination of classic or experimental hop varietal; Malt is easy to identify: Rye or wheat; Dark or light. The descriptions of both hops and malts follow a language easily understood by the beer drinker. They’re familiar terms; They’re terms that, should a drinker use the word “juicy,” “floral,” or “bitter,” their counterparts across the table can assess and identify; Terms like “bready” or “roasty” are part of a beer vernacular.
Beer drinkers even, to a slight degree, understand water with it’s pH levels. For this, thanks should be shouted out to all the ninth grade biology classes that covered hard and soft water.
But yeast is an advanced degree or two away from the rudimentary language and knowledge, and as much as it’s en vogue to call brewers “artists” (and some of them definitely possess those right-brained tendencies), they should be called what they really are: Scientists.
When I was in San Diego for San Diego Beer Week, I got a chance to sit down at White Labs, where much of this nation’s brewers yeast is developed, stored, and analyzed. White Labs has operations in Davis, Boulder, Asheville, Copenhagen, and Hong Kong, but San Diego is the epicenter. At the tasting room and lab, beer drinkers get an educational experience alongside their excellent flight of beers
What kept White going was a desire to make better beer.”
Instead of four beers – say, a wheat beer, a pale ale, an IPA, and a stout – you choose one beer style (I chose the Oat IPA). Then, you taste the same beer on four different yeast strains. Despite the same water, malts, and hops, what results is four almost entirely different beers. Some yeast showcases the hops, some yeast bring out the effects of the malt, some yeast lets the water be the star of the show, and some yeast brings itself to the forefront.
Truly, if beer drinkers care about the beers and the craft as much as it’s professed, this is an experience they should undertake.
After San Diego Beer Week’s conclusion, I got a chance to chat with Chris White, the owner of White Labs, whose company provided yeast to more than 50% of the 2017 Great American Beer Festival medal-winning brewers (the list of commercial clients is confidential and unavailable). We chatted about the companies history, but also about how to explain yeast to beer lovers.
While a biochemistry student at University of California - Davis, White began homebrewing. Ultimately, he landed in San Diego. At the onset of his brewing, he’d been simply using packets of dry yeast.
“I remember some of my first batches that had packets of dry yeast,” he told me. “The technology was really poor at this time, so it was basically baker’s yeast. They made beers that were really phenolic. They didn’t really taste anything like beer.”
What kept White going was a desire to make better beer, which ultimately led him into making his own yeast. His background in biochemistry helped to make that a reality. At the time, there was little to no market of yeast for scaling up for breweries or homebrewers looking to create larger quantities of beer
“It was always about making better beer which is what led me to making my own yeast,” said White, who opened up the Home Brew Mart in San Diego in 1995, which birthed Ballast Point. “I wanted to taste different varieties of yeast, but there was nothing really available in large quantities. I had the background and interest in brewing up yeast, so I got more and more into the yeast and fermentation side.”
The major difference between what yeast was then versus what yeast is now, simply put, according to White, is speed.
“It was disregarding flavor for speed,” White said. “Brewers yeast hasn’t changed much at all. As brewers started using yeast in the middle ages back in Europe, they were domesticating it. Once it became domesticated, it just began making better and better beer. The brewer’s yeast we’re using now is not a recent concoction at all. Brewers have been using it for hundreds of years from all over the globe, so there are different strains and they’re all very unique and very old.”
Despite its lack of editorial and easy-to-explain allure, yeast is perhaps the most fascinating ingredient in beer. It’s easy to excite White by simply asking what yeast does.
“Yeast has over 500 flavor and aroma compounds,” he explained. “All those carbohydrates and sugars don’t go to ethanol and CO2, they go to all sorts of different places. They can highlight the flavor components of malts or hops. It becomes really important that a brewer uses the right strain. The difference in yeast is the DNA and the expression of those genes.”
The goal of White Labs, according to its owner, is innovation, education, and experimentation. All three things are critical to making the beer world get over the final hurdle to understand the language of it’s most complex component.
“It’s hard to explain. But once you come in the tasting room, you can try these beers on different fermenters and different yeasts, and you’ll say, ‘Ohh, now I can really taste the difference.’ It comes to the point where it’s not even like you’re drinking the same beer. There’s just not a ton of language about yeast to talk about it to the customers.”
Another primary function of the White Labs tasting room is to exhibit to customers and, to an extent, other brewers what different yeasts do in the same beer. While conventional wisdom suggests to stick with what you know, White says it’s “Definitely” happened that a brewery has taken a beer they previously considered to be pretty good, tried it on a different strain of yeast only to discover it’s much better.
Right now, the most popular style of yeast is White’s first. It’s called “California Ale Yeast” and is strain # 001. Appropriate to its native county, it’s what White called a “great strain for IPA.”
“When IPA became a little more popular across the country, it was awesome to have a yeast strain that was really good [at showcasing the hops],” he said.
For the future, White does not foresee the creation of any new yeast strains coming out of White Labs, though genetically modified strains of yeast have been created, but haven’t been used in brewing.
“Will there be new strains from science?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, I think so. I just don't know when. I'll leave that up to the consumers.”