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Letter from the President
By Chris White

A number of people have asked me over the years, what makes pitchable yeast significant? This is a subject that is obviously important to me, as it goes to the heart of why I started White Labs. Iíll try to answer the question here.

Before I started the company I was making yeast for Pizza Port in Solana Beach; that was before Tomme Arthur started working as a brewer. I made the size of yeast for them that any brewery could get at the time, which was the amount of yeast necessary to pitch one barrel.

It was an amount that could be grown up by the brewer, which at that time was Vince Marsaglia. (Of course, today most people know Vince as the owner of two successful breweries in Southern California, but in Pizza Portís infancy, Vince handled a wide range of tasks ó including brewing the beer). Vince said there was a lack of tank space to propagate the yeast, so he got me thinking, why canít we make a pitchable batch of yeast for a small brewery? Pizza Port was a seven-barrel brewery at the time (with their second facility, Pizza Portís brewing capacity has since tripled). That is why I started a manufacturing system that would produce yeast at rates of seven barrels.

So, even today, there is a price drop between our two-barrel and seven-barrel batch sizes, because we designed the plant to make pitchable rates in increments of seven barrels; it works well for 14, 21, etc. It also allowed us the flexibility to produce custom strains in any batch size.

Producing pitchable yeast helped us grow in the first year or two. We provided something that at the time was not available ó pitchable yeast in sizes that didnít have to be propagated. It was perfect, and still is, for brewers that donít have the tank space, the manpower, or the time, to propagate yeast. Small breweries need to make beer, not propagate yeast. By producing yeast in a mass-production kind of system, weíre able to really keep the cost low for breweries. For $150 we produce enough yeast to pitch seven barrels of beer. I donít believe an individual brewery can come close to producing it at that cost in-house.

We offer one barrel and two barrel sizes for breweries that do want to propagate, but the price drops so much by going to the seven-barrel size (which ties into our manufacturing system), most brewers find the cost to be lower to buy the seven-barrel size, and increments thereof. I think the seven-barrel size is the best value in the industry.

When I explain how I started White Labs, it gives people an idea of why we do things the way we do; for instance, why we produce seven-barrel yeast batches at such competitive prices. But when I explain how we started, a lot of people follow up with this additional question: Why is White Labs better at propagating yeast than a brewery?

Another great question, and one that I could spend a lot of time answering. I will try to be brief.

White Labs is a sterile manufacturing facility with experienced and trained staff and modern systems. We have systems for sterilizing the wort, for instance. That is something brewers generally are not able to do. Also, the yeast is grown in a clean room.

We propagate extremely healthy yeast, as evidenced by our viability tests. Well over 90 percent of the yeast is alive after 30 days; typically a breweryís yeast is 50 percent viable after 30 days. The yeast goes through lots of testing before itís sent out: we look for bacteria, wild yeast, cell counts and other factors. Even if a brewer has time, they generally are not able to put the yeast through such a rigorous testing process.

This is not to suggest that we only make yeast for small breweries without the resources to outfit their own labs. In fact, we make yeast for breweries with sophisticated labs. But they know their time is better spent quality testing the beer. It is more economical for them to have the yeast made and then concentrate on testing the finished product.

Some breweries do a good job propagating their own yeast. Iím not saying it canít be done, but it adds another potential problem in the pipeline to making great beer. You go ahead and make great beer, weíll worry about the yeast.

Contact me at (858) 693-3441, ext. 223, or if you have questions or suggestions regarding this column.

Chris White is President of White Labs Inc. and is a chemistry and biochemistry lecturer at the University of California, San Diego. He has a Ph.D in biochemistry.