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San Diego Brewers Get A Boost From Local Yeast Maker

Aired 3/25/16 on KPBS News.

San Diego's craft brewing hub got a huge boost from a local company that specializes in making a crucial element in the beer making process, yeast.

These are heady days for the San Diego craft brewing industry. The region boasts more than 110 breweries and there are plans in the works for up to 40 more. Local craft brewers share a common heritage and that's helped create San Diego's standing as a craft-beer hub.

Chris White swipes a key card across an electronic keypad. The president and chief executive officer of White Labs shows off the facilities at the Miramar-area office park that houses the company's headquarters. The lock beeps and opens a door. Just a few steps away is an entrance to the company's analytical laboratory.

"This is where we do a lot of testing on the beers. For alcohol levels and flavor compounds. It's a little chemistry lab. We don't grow any yeast in here," White said.

But they do test yeast, yeast strains and even beer. The San Diego company is one of largest yeast sellers in the country and it's one reason why San Diego has such an active craft brewing industry. For years, the company has worked with home brewers and the region's largest beer makers, helping them find the best possible yeast for their brews.

An important pillar in the beer making process

"Yeast contribute a lot of flavor to beer," White said. "Most people would know they make the alcohol. They consume the sugars from the malted barley, the brewers extract those sugars out and then yeast consume those sugars and produce ethanol."

White Labs owner Chris Whites sits in the tasting room of his company's headquarters, Feb. 29, 2016.

Yeast also creates carbonation, those tiny little bubbles that drift up a cold glass of beer. The yeast leaves behind flavor as it consumes the sugars in the vat of grains, hops and water. And flavor is the reason White Labs has a tasting room.

White said it's important to be able to demonstrate just how a yeast can impact beer. Change the yeast strain and the brewer changes the beer.

"I could talk for hours about yeast. Or in five minutes you could try the different yeast strains and say, 'Oh. I see what they do. I see how important this is,'" White said.

White studied fermentation as an undergraduate student at the University of California Davis. He bolstered his credentials by adding a biochemistry Ph.D. from the University of California San Diego. But beer was never too far away. White began cooking beer 20 years ago with his San Diego friends, some of whom just sold their Ballast Point brewery for $1 billion.

San Diego beer is no longer a home brew phenomenon. It is big business.

"In 2009, I don't think any of us saw it coming," White said. "In 2009 the industry really started taking off because consumers started noticing. Before then it was really, kind of, beer geeks that were paying attention."

Those beer geeks laid the foundation for an economic sector that's doubled in size in the past five years. And White Labs had a major role in that success. Yeast from White Labs can be found in beer made at every brewery in the region, small or large. Being local made a difference.

"They drive over here and pick it up from will call and then go home. They can use different strains every week and every day if they want to," White said. "So it allows a lot of different beer styles to be brewed. Because each yeast strain is important to different yeast styles."

And if something goes wrong in the beer making process, brewers can bring the beer in and have lab technicians do a lot of analytical analysis, White said. It is about people working together.

Local brewers have White Labs in the mix

A person cracks open a beer from Mother Earth Brew Company, Feb. 29, 2016.

10 Largest San Diego Brewers

Based on barrels brewed in 2014.

Stone Brewing Co. - 287,075 barrels

Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits - 123,425 barrels

Karl Strauss Brewing Co. - 67,000 barrels

Green Flash Brewing Co. - 65,000 barrels

Coronado Brewing Co. - 26,380 barrels

Port Brewing Co. - 15,000 barrels

Mother Earth Brew Co. - 15,000 barrels

AleSmith Brewing Co. - 14,600 barrels

Mission Brewery - 10,000 barrels

Belching Beaver Brewery Inc. - 6,500 barrels

Source: San Diego Business Journal

Up north in Vista, Mother Earth Brew Company makes beer around the clock. Huge vats, barrels and cold rooms fill a rather unassuming office park. Kevin Hopkins is happy to show off a brewery that's nearly at full capacity.

Hopkins, immediate past president of the San Diego Brewers Guild, said having White Labs here made a huge difference.

"That convenience factor also gets to the fact that we're not catalogue shopping," Hopkins said.

Sometimes, brewers look for a strain of yeast that brings forth a specific flavor and that strain may not be one of the prepackaged varieties. Brewing is a specialized and creative process.

"We're doing something where we can touch it, drink it, smell it, feel it," Hopkins said. "Craft brewing is extremely meticulous. It's akin to baking, which I believe is the most structured of the cooking disciplines, if you will. It's time, temperature and recipe driven. You have to do it right every single time or the end result is going to be different."

The key to success is the ability to replicate the quality and taste of a specific beer, batch after batch, vat after vat.

Mother Earth is not the largest brewer in the county, but the company is in the top 10, according to the San Diego Business Journal. The company got there because it cooked up a good product that found a receptive audience.

Cooking up success

Brooke Ruth / KPBS

This graphic shows where beer made in San Diego County is sold — 46 percent of it is sold locally, while 20 percent is sold regionally.

Source: San Diego Business Journal

A local study of the craft-beer sector found the cluster has cooked up a $600 million economic footprint. It has created or helps sustain more than 6,200 jobs. Craft brewing also generated wealth because more than half of the locally produced beer is sold outside the local region. That pulls money into San Diego.

"White labs is the linchpin for the craft-beer industry here in San Diego being an industry cluster," said Vince Vasquez, a senior policy analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research.

Craft beer's local economic impact has doubled since 2011. Vasquez said the region fermented a passion for brewing and had plenty of customers willing to try innovative products. And White Labs has been there priming the pump.

"It's knowledge transfer," Vasquez said. "It's this real organic process of what I do and what you can learn from what I do and seeing what I do and that's something that's unique to the San Diego region."

Vasquez says 12 percent of all the beer consumed in the nation is craft beer. That percentage climbs to about 40 percent in San Diego County. Even mega-brewers like Anhueser-Busch InBev and SAB Miller are buying or opening craft beer places here, hoping to secure a piece of the market.

"I think certainly there's a lot more room to run when it comes to craft breweries and brew pubs opening. That being said, I think that San Diego does continue to have these higher expectations, that those new brewers or brew pubs opening, have to meet. Or have to exceed," Vasquez said.

And while the local brewing cluster relies heavily on the expertise developed by White Labs, the local market is only a small part of that firm's business. White Labs ships product all over the nation. And the local company has offices in Denmark and Hong Kong, making it easier to serve customers overseas.

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