Happy Hour at White Labs

Erik Fowler styles us out with information and beer.

Beer is four things: water, barley, hops and yeast. We hear a little about barley and a lot about hops – it’s San Diego and we’ve been IPA’d to death. But yeast, not so much. Maybe we’re a little squeamish because it’s a microorganism.

Regardless, a squad of intrepid SANDSWArs paid a visit to White Labs last Wednesday to learn about the company, the yeast and the beer.

We were led by White Labs education and engagement curator Erik Fowler, but received an impromptu visit from founder and CEO Chris White, who happened to be quaffing a brew in the nearby tasting room. White has a PhD in biochemistry from UCSD and started White Labs in 1995, when he saw the potential synergy between his academic pursuits and his home brewing hobby.

That’s really the story of the microbrewing revolution: home brewers got more and more into it and ultimately started businesses. White Labs has evolved into a yeast multinational, with locations in Asheville, Boulder, Davis, Hong Kong and Copenhagen.

White Labs is on a mission to isolate better yeast. There are no genetic modifications involved, not yet. They just find it where they can: a vineyard in Healdsburg, a shipwreck off the Danish coast, the standard domesticated varieties that have been around for hundreds of years.

As Fowler showed us during the tasting (yum), different yeasts can have major impact on flavor, consistency, nose and color.

White shared some great anecdotes about his evolution from biochemist to yeast maven. There was the beer festival in Nuremburg, where Germans dissed the IPAs (That’s not beer!), and the Dane’s more generous reception.

We also picked up some terminology. Flocculating is when the yeast forms into small clumps and falls out of suspension. International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is an objective way to measure beer bitterness. For the record, an IBU is one milligram of isomerized alpha acid per liter of beer.

We also discussed the famous Cell paper, in which White Labs, Illumina and others sequenced and phenotyped 157 S. cerevisiae yeast strains. White memorialized the paper with a brew called Frankenstout, which contains 96 of those strains.

The company doesn’t make a lot of beer, they don’t want to compete with their clients, but it’s more than enough to power their must-visit tasting room. Many thanks to Erik, Chris and everyone else at White Labs for shedding light on the yeasts and sharing a beer.

If you missed it, don’t be sad. Contact Erik at efowler@whitelabs.com, he’ll set you up.

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