Skip to main content

WNC Business

Local yeast propagation facilitates creativity and consistency for local brewers

May 09, 2024 07:38AM ● By Randee Brown

Yeast plays a crucial role not just in brewing beer in general, but in certain flavors and aromas brewers are seeking from different varieties of beer, according to White Labs’ Technical Education Coordinator Devin Tani. 

Started in San Diego, California, by Dr. Chris White, White Labs began propagating liquid yeast for brewing beer in 1995. White was a home brewer himself, and wanting to help others create different and better styles of beer, White expanded his work and turned his passion into a business. White Labs made fresh liquid yeast easily available, so local craft brewers were easily able to stop by and pick up the ingredients necessary for their beers.

Noticing the booming craft beer scene in the WNC area and experiencing shipping woes, White expanded his San Diego business to Asheville. The new location grew quickly to match the production of the West Coast location because of the local brewing community’s demand, and now employs 53 individuals. 

The number of yeast strains produced is expansive, according to Tani. White Labs maintains 80 core domesticated strains and keeps more in their vault, and the use of different strains changes the beer styles brewers are able to create.

“If a brewer uses the same hops, water, and malt and only changes the strain of yeast used in a brew, it’s mind-blowing how much that can change the flavor, mouth feel, and color of the beer,” Tani said.

The variety allows small-batch brewers to experiment with their beers, fostering creativity in seasonal or one-off brews. Breweries with staple beers that must be consistent over time are able to easily do so using White Labs’ yeast strains as well.

To allow brewers the ability to maintain consistency in their products, strains of yeast are able to be cryogenically frozen to maintain their original flavor. These frozen colonies can be used to create a reproducible product years later. If yeast colonies are not frozen, genetic mutations and other changes lead to differences in the strain over time.

Frozen colonies can be very small, and from those small samples, it takes approximately 21 days to propagate the colony to a usable size. Tani said this growth needs to happen in a very controlled environment, and White Labs has 38 checkpoints during this process.

For brewers looking for specific flavor profiles, Tani said genetic sequencing helps identify differences in strains. Identifying the flavors is the most important aspect, and they can also use genetic testing to determine yeast performance so brewers know how quickly they can turn out fresh batches of beer.

In addition to providing yeast to local beer makers from home brewers to large brewing facilities, White Labs also helps the brewing community by supplying nutrients and enzymes as well as hosting workshops for brewers.

“We hope to help build knowledge in the community,” Tani said. “With about 80% of the area’s brewers coming to us for their product, we take this pretty seriously.”

The Asheville location recently installed a 30 hectoliter brewhouse in which White Labs is able to hone their recipe to create a more robust medium in which to grow their yeast. This will allow them to cultivate more customizable and precise varieties for brewers, providing strains that are more robust and easier to work with. 

“Yeast plays such a crucial role in flavors and aromas, and we are an open source for recipes and analytics so people can see how the yeast performs,” Tani said. “People are able to stop by and try our beer, and if they want to brew with that yeast strain, they can. We are not trying to compete with anyone we supply yeast to; our goal is to be an open source for the community.”