Bubbling Over: Q&A with Chris White, White Labs

/ / Business, Food & Flavor

As a biochemistry grad student with a penchant for homebrewing, Chris White never thought his growing collection of yeast strains would amount to anything outside a hobby. But when White graduated with his PhD and was offered a lucrative job in the biotech field, one caveat kept him from accepting the offer — there were no side jobs allowed. 

“I never had some big plan to start a company. But I liked all the fermentation stuff I was doing and didn’t want to let go of my yeasts,” says White, CEO and founder of White Labs. “I said no to the job, and from there White Labs kept going and going and getting bigger and bigger.”  

Today, White Labs is a powerhouse in the fermentation industry. They provide professional breweries with liquid yeast, nutrient blends, educational classes, analytic testing and private consulting. 

White Labs is celebrating a landmark 25th anniversary this year, despite a global pandemic that has shuttered breweries. They have released their own line of beer, created a new nutrient blend for hard seltzer brands, began a YouTube series and launched free how-to education classes for homebrewers. White Labs will host a year in review webcast on Dec. 9.

“We’ve had a lot of success and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ve tried to learn from those mistakes. But we’re a team. And we really got lucky that we hired people interested in fermentation that helped build this company,” White says. “Everyone really pulled together during COVID and did whatever was needed. It’s been a great experience because we had solutions and we had teamwork. And I think it’s taken 25 years to get to that team, that tribe.” 

A yeast guru, White is a co-author of the book “Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation.” Below, check out our Q&A with White. 

The Fermentation Association: You studied biochemistry at University of California, Davis, then got your PhD in biochemistry at University of California, San Diego. What made you decide to dive into yeasts?

CW: I was always interested in science since high school chemistry, and then in college was interested in how cells work, how DNA worked. It drove me to where I am today, really. Most people I went to school with at UC Davis, they were studying biochemistry to be a physician. But that’s not what I wanted to do, I was more interested in biotech and grad school.

Meanwhile, I was homebrewing. It was a great combination of things that happened. The science and homebrewing is what led me to put that together and make yeast for homebrewing, then yeast for craft brewing. 

TFA: Is that what led you to start White Labs?

CW: It really was. I like beer. I was fascinated with how it could be made. It’s pretty simple to make beer — simple, but not easy. It’s difficult to make a great beer. But it’s fairly simple since it’s only four ingredients if you include the water. That’s what’s great about a lot of fermentation, the raw materials are all around you. They’re simple. Making it taste good is the hard part, that’s the art of it. I liked beer, I really got into homebrewing, then the people I was making homebrewed beer with started a store in San Diego, Home Brew Mart, in 1992. We became friends and that’s who I was homebrewing with every weekend. Then my friend from the store said “Hey, we need yeast,” and I started a little company on the side to make yeast. It wasn’t like I had some big plan to start a company, I thought I’d just make a little each week. And then other people asked and other people asked. By the time I got closer to finishing grade school, I just didn’t want to stop doing the yeast for brewing.

TFA: Now there are over 1,000 strains of yeast in the White Labs yeast bank. Tell me about it.

CW: We have a yeast bank that I spent a lot of time building in the beginning, more for my own brews, but obviously later on, it became more and more. The foundation of our company is our yeast strains and the way we store them. We’re collecting strains all the time. But what I did in the beginning was collect different strains from travel, from different yeast banks. We created our own private yeast bank at White Labs, but there are yeast banks around the world. Especially in Europe where brewing really began in an industrial way and where yeast was discovered and started to get collected. There’s a great yeast bank in Denmark, Germany, the UK. I spent a lot of time acquiring strains from those.

You get to know the yeast in a different way, the strains, what they do. Performance, conditions. But for beer especially, it’s really how they taste, which is so important. We only make those flavors through fermentation. We still continue to acquire strains. People send them to us, we bank private strains for companies, sometimes they buy them in a liquid form we make for them, sometimes we just store it for them. But usually, they’re banking it for us to make something with it.

TFA: Besides yeast, White Labs offer testing services as well.

CW: White Labs Analytical Lab is really separate in the fact that a lot of people that work in that lab don’t really have anything to do with the yeast. It’s just testing samples. They’re usually fermented beverages. Yes, there’s beer there, but that’s just a part of White Labs Analytical Lab. There’s the spirits that come for testing, kombucha, cider, mead, any kind of commercial business making a fermented beverage that needs some kind of testing. Sometimes it’s regulatory for export. Sometimes it’s just for their own data, like actual alcohol by volume instead of calculated, sometimes it’s microbiology or tracking down a problem or contamination. It’s all confidential, like everything at White Labs. But we get to work with a lot of cool companies, a lot of them may not get yeast from us, that’s really not a requirement. The yeast and testing run separate.

TFA: Have you seen kombucha brewing grow?

CW: Oh yeah. Originally, that’s how we got into analytical testing because people were asking for alcohol lab evaluations, which is so important in kombucha. We all know what happened there (Whole Foods pulled all kombucha bottles off shelves in 2010 after several brands tested at higher alcohol beverage levels then what was printed on the bottles). And it happened because it’s a biological process. You put that thing in a bottle and it’s going to keep fermenting. People had to really try to figure out what to do with that. So a lot of alcohol testing, and a lot of that is regulatory in kombucha. 

But then we started making SCOBYs because a couple of our staff got really into it. Just like I started making yeast in my own home brewing, they started making SCOBY in White Labs for their own kombucha making. So we said “Let’s sell it.” And now we make a bunch of it.

TFA: That’s forward-thinking, expanding your offerings to all fermented drink products. 

CW: Yeah and the different facilities allow us to do different things. We grow all the SCOBYs in North Carolina because it was a new facility at the time and had the space, San Diego is full. 

TFA: White Labs released their own canned beer in July. Tell me about it.

CW: A lot of the things that came out of this year really were not new ideas, like canning. Someone gave a presentation at White Labs during one of our internal innovation summits that’s open to anyone in the staff about canning beer. But during this time of COVID, when we’re not focusing on growth, we were able to work on a lot of those projects and really build a better company. Once we gave up the idea that revenue is not going to go up right now, we worked on other things. And it’s been great. A lot of cool things have been coming out of our teamwork this year, and one of those was canning. 

So we said let’s do that because we’re not selling beer in our tap room — we’ve got a tap room in San Diego for White Labs Brewing Company and a kitchen and tap in Asheville, it’s more of a full restaurant. We weren’t selling a lot of beer and we have a lot of beer, so why not can it? We have done three different beers now in cans. The IPA, a hazy IPA and the pilsner. And we’re going to do another lager and IPA next month. It’s been fun for the brewers to be able to brew it. I think it’s been a nice boost for everyone in the company, not even money wise, just to have another milestone: we put our beers in cans. It’s a nice billboard for the brewery. And they get to have fun with graphics, and how to tell our story, and really share what we’re doing in the tap rooms. 

People are amazed that it’s the same beer, same exact batch but put into smaller fermenters and pitched with two different yeast strains. They say “Wow, you created different flavor beers? They taste different?” Yeah, because that’s fermentation. Fermentation makes these flavors and when people taste that it’s the same exact beer made with two different yeast strains, they get it in 30 seconds. “Oh that’s what a yeast does?” But you have to come to our tap room to experience that. And obviously during these times, you can’t come to the tap room. But canning is a way to share that with people outside the tap rooms. 

TFA: Who buys more yeast from White Labs commercial producers or homebrewers?

CW: Commercial because of volume. But we’re available for everything in homebrew. We try to mirror every test, every yeast strain, and make those available for home brewing because that’s our roots and I think it’s important. There’s been growth in home brewing during COVID. People at home with a hobby are buying yeast. That’s kind of nice, I like to see that.

TFA: Craft brewing has been hit so hard by pandemic. What have you seen your clients doing to survive?

CW: They’re getting creative. People had to figure out the to-go thing, first of all. That maybe involved buying software or creating a new website. Each company I talk to, regardless of what industry, they had to do something technology wise. Very few could close the bar door and were all set up to sell everything through the warehouse. 

I think customers were also really good about supporting local businesses, wanting to help them. There’s been a lot of to-go. But it still doesn’t compare to all the beer they could sell, all the stuff that gets sold through bars. Even if one little meadery sells more to go, it doesn’t replicate all the tap room business that just disappears.

TFA: What do you think is the future of the fermented drink industry?

CW: It’s up to them. We pay attention so we can be there to help. But really these things come from creative people. New things have to come out. That keeps the industry growing. And I don’t know what those new things are, but we try and pay attention.

I think transparency and honesty is a hallmark of fermentation industries — whether craft breweries or wineries — and I hope that stays. That’s been a big part of the trust with consumers, and the fact that you can do these things at home too, so you know how it’s done. And with new techniques or things that get introduced, I think the industry needs to keep the transparency part of the business. Because fermentation being such an old, old method — a lot of people would like to replace fermentation with something else. They say “Let’s just mix these things together rather than do that weird fermentation.” But weird fermentation is what makes it so special.