This week it is a distinct pleasure to feature Chris White, the President of White Labs Inc – one of the world’s premiere providers of brewing yeast for both commercial and home brewers. White labs is a pioneer in providing commercial quality yeasts to home brewers.
1. When and how did you get started in brewing beer?
I was in college at UC Davis in the late 80’s, and one of my roommates made a beer in our kitchen. He left the beer sitting for months in the carboy, so finally another roommate mine, Pete (now a veterinarian), and I bottled and drank it. We soon decided to try home brewing on our own. Thanks Pete for helping me to start home brewing!
2. You started White Labs in 1995 – what made you decide to start the business?
I moved to San Diego in 1991 for graduate school. I had stored my homebrewing equipment in a closet until I went into a shop that had just opened, Homebrew Mart. Visiting the shop sparked my interest again and I started homebrewing with Yuseff Cherney, the first employee of the store and now Head Brewer of Ballast Point Brewing. One day he mentioned the need for liquid yeast that is ready the day homebrewers come into the shop. I was doing my graduate thesis in a yeast lab, so I started to make yeast for our personal homebrew, and soon began making yeast for customers of Homebrew Mart. I decided to start White Labs soon there after.
3. In the 1990’s we saw a huge increase in the quality of ingredients available to the home brewer. How did the widespread availability of liquid yeast change homebrewing?
I think that liquid yeast allowed homebrewers to make a great commercial quality beer and it also gave them the opportunity to try to make beers they really liked as well as experiment with styles from around the world. I know when I was homebrewing actively, before White Labs, the different yeast strain options kept me excited with the hobby.
4. You pioneered the introduction of prepackaged yeast vials for homebrewers – what are some of the advantages of this system?
We wanted to make a quantity of yeast that homebrewers could use the day they bought it from the homebrew store. It took a lot of work and a lot of yeast it get it dialed in, you need a lot of yeast in a packaged vial to properly start a 5 gallon homebrew batch. The goal was to achieve a lag phase of approximately 12 hours, this way home brewers would have a short lag time, and if they wanted to do a starter or a larger size, it is easy to build up further from a large starting size. Another advantage was to have a variety of strains available to choose from in the store and the convenience of having the product ready to go when you are ready to brew.
5. You also sell professional beer and wine yeasts – what are the differences between your professional and homebrewing line?
Most of the yeast we produce goes to commercial breweries, but the yeast cultures are exactly the same. There are advantages for both the homebrewer and commercial brewer. The homebrewer gets the same high quality yeast that has been designed to fit the fermentation standards of a commercial brewery. The commercial brewer gets the benefit of the multiple strains we produce from the homebrewer. We package approximately 50 strains for the homebrewer. Commercial breweries regularly buy about 20 of these. We start new cultures from slants every 2 days, this keeps fresh yeast in the pipeline for their 3-week production cycle. When commercial brewers want the other strains, it is easy for us to start them.
6. What are some of the changes in homebrewing you have seen since you started?
I think homebrewing has become a real American hobby. When I started, most of the books were foreign, usually from the UK. The focus was not so much on crafting great quality beer, and it was also difficult because of the availability ingredients. Now home brewers in the US have really made it a distinct hobby, and produced a demand for high quality ingredients and revolutionized home brew equipment. Homebrews are getting better all the time, it’s pretty amazing that a beer of commercial quality can be at home.
7. What sets White Labs apart?
Our goal is to be become the best yeast production company in the world. With everything we do, we ask ourselves “Are we being the best we can be?”, and use that to make decisions and to constantly push ourselves to be the best. We are also always on the look out for new ways to improve yeast and fermentation, so we add new products and testing as often as we can and have a lot of fun doing it. White Labs is not a typical lab, our team is really passionate about what they do, if someone doesn’t like beer or brewing, they won’t enjoy working at White Labs.
8. What advice would you offer to homebrewers looking to improve their next beer?
Experiment and be consistent. It is great to experiment, that is what makes home brewing so much fun, but also do things to improve your consistency. That is what makes you a better brewer. Use a scale to weigh out your ingredients. Measure and record the volumes and temperatures. Learn more about fermentation at look at yeast with a microscope. Adding some laboratory methods can be fun and can really improve your brews!
9. Where do you see homebrewing going in the near future?
I think homebrewing will keep growing and improving, many new people are starting to homebrew every year. We need to continue teaching them how to make great beer, and in turn learn from their new ideas. Home brewers are always creating new equipment and pushing the envelope of beer styles. It’s a great community and I’m excited for the future.
10. Is there anything else you would like to add?
My first brewing book was Charlie Papazian’s classic, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing.” The humor in that book was great for me as a beginner and I continue to suggest it to everyone who has an interest in homebrewing.
I would like to personally thank Chris White for taking time out of his very busy schedule to interview with us here on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Thanks for joining us and don’t hesitate to subscribe for more great brewing articles.
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