As someone who is interested enough in beer, or more specifically the craft beer community, to venture to a website dedicated to celebrating the craft of beer you have probably been to your fair share of tasting rooms or events. When you go to a brewery’s tasting room you are often greeted by a bar with several beers on tap that you are familiar with. Also on the menu you will typically find beers only available in the tap room, or maybe even limited release beers that are difficult to find around town but flow freely from the taps in the tasting room. You almost always have the opportunity to order a flight of tasters (should your curiosity take over, screaming that you need to try EVERYTHING!) or you can order a pint. One thing you might not expect is to walk into the tasting room and find the same beer on tap 4 times. If you are like me you want to try anything on tap at the brewery that you have never had before and maybe grab a growler on the way out the door to share with some friends who couldn’t make the trek. The last thing I want to see when I walk into a brewery is the same beer on the tap list over and over and over and over again.
Believe it or not that is the exact reason to go to White Labs, because they have reinvented the tasting room specifically designed around the product that they sell. White Labs is not a company that sells beer, although in this case they are serving beer at their tasting room. White Labs is a company that sells Yeast. In fact, they are one of the two main suppliers of brewers yeast to the professional and home brewing community. There are four traditional ingredients found in beer (generally speaking): Malted Barley, Hops, Water and Yeast. The first two ingredients, Barley and Hops, are the two ingredients that consumers of beer are most likely acquainted with, but Water and Yeast are the two forgotten about ingredients. Im not sure about you, but I have definitely heard of someone being described as a Hop-Head – but I have also definitely not heard of someone being described as a Yeast-Head. But really, Yeast is probably the one single ingredient that can cause the most dynamic shift in a beer. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that a brewer could brew up a single batch of wort and split it into two different fermenters with a different yeast in each and end up with two dramatically different beers. But they probably wouldn’t be any good would they? Well, you would be surprised. The traditional ingredients in a Premium American Lager are nearly identical to the ingredients traditionally used in a Cream Ale. The main ingredient that differs? Yeast. Pitch a lager strain in one fermenter and an ale strain in the other and you have yourself to stylistically accurate batches of beer. Cool huh?
Well, if you think learning about the difference yeast can make in a beer, you will be in heaven when you visit White Labs. The tasting room has been open for some time now, but I finally made it down to San Diego a few weeks ago and I made it a priority to stop by and see what the tasting room had to offer. When you walk into the facility you immediately see a wall with 30-40 taps on it. Its an awe inspiring and daunting image at the same time. When you sit down at the bar you are handed a list of all of the beers on tap. The different thing about this list of taps is that the beer list reads more like a science experiment list rather than a list of delicious beers to choose from. White Labs brews up batches of beer and then splits the wort into multiple fermenters with different yeast strains in each. My list included a Brown Ale, 3 Amber Ales, 2 Belgian Blondes, 5 Belgian IPAs, 3 Belgian Dubbels, 4 California Commons and 4 Scottish Wee Heavys. Next to each beer listed is a Batch # along with the Yeast Strain. I decided I would order all four of the Scottish Wee Heavy ales. For this beer White Labs had fermented 3 of the taps with English style yeast strains, and one with an American style yeast strain. Getting the opportunity to drink all four of these beers side by side from the same wort using different yeast strains was a fantastic experience. Splitting batches is something that I have done in my own brewing, but never to this scale or with this much variety. For my tastes, I found that the Burton Ale strain (WLP023) was a fantastic strain of yeast that really stood out from the other strains used for the Wee Heavy. I actually wrote down that it would be a great yeast to use in a future batch of an American or Russian Imperial Stout.
At the bottom of every hour one of the White Labs staff members takes customers into the lab area on a guided tour through the facility. Unfortunately camera equipment is not allowed back here, so you will have to make the trip yourself to see the huge refrigerator full of thousands of vials of yeast, or the propagation room littered with Erlenmeyer flasks. During our tour our guide let us know that you can buy your yeast directly from White Labs via their website Yeastman.com, along with other White Labs gear.
White Labs also offers an alcohol test kit where you can send in your own home brew and have it professionally tested by White Labs to provide you with measurements for alcohol by volume and weight, IBU’s (International Bitterness Units), Bacteria and Wild Yeast, Diacetyl (a compound produced by yeast that can contribute a buttery popcorn like flavor in beer), color analysis (what color your beer is – typically follows the SRM (Standard Reference Method) for determining the color differences in different beers), along with many other results.
I managed to make my way through a round of Amber Ales before calling it a day, but I plan on making White Labs a standard stop for future visits to San Diego. If you are ever in San Diego and are looking for something different and potentially educational I highly suggest stopping by White Labs to see how different two beers can be when different strains of yeast are used.