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White Labs Changes Definition of ‘Green Beer’

San Diego-based White Labs Inc. is looking to make sustainability a much more prominent ingredient in the recipes of commercial and home brewers of craft beer.

The nearly 20-year-old provider of beer yeast and related testing services recently unveiled new proprietary technology that White Labs contends is a significant twist on the way yeast has been cultivated in the brewing process for more than a century.

Rather than growing yeast in traditional stainless-steel fermenters, the company’s patent-pending FlexCell process uses a flexible packaging, made from a recyclable and flexible film, to simultaneously contain and process the yeast.

Think, for instance, of those self-contained filter packs that are sometimes used in coffeemakers, although the White Labs product is made of a breathable plastic material in which yeast fermentation actually takes place during the brewing process.

FlexCell — along with a homebrewer version called PurePitch, introduced at a recent brewing conference in Michigan — enables longer yeast shelf size and reduces the chance of contamination by eliminating the need to transfer yeast between containers during brewing, officials at the Miramar-headquartered company said.

With the new technology, there is reduced wastage and less need to clean fermentation vats, White Labs President and CEO Chris White said. In the process, brewers should be able to significantly reduce their use of water, electricity, cleaners and plastics.

“It’s less of an environmental impact after the process,” said White, a trained biochemist who started White Labs in 1995, not long after earning a doctorate from the University of California, San Diego.

At its Miramar facilities — which include a beer-tasting room and limited brewing operations, along with yeast production — White Labs projects that the new technology will help the company save more than 4.7 million gallons of water annually, along with 13.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

It also expects to use 1,560 fewer gallons of cleaners and sanitizers, and cut the use of plastics by 76 percent annually. The FlexCell technology will also streamline White Labs’ production and inventory management, and yeast packages will include barcodes to help its retail customers manage inventory and track sales, said Neva Parker, the company’s head of laboratory operations.

White said the technology allows for easier storage and merchandising, and has enabled the company to extend the average shelf life of a yeast batch — from four to about six months.

Quality Keeping Craft Brewing Strong

The company recently began selling the newly packaged yeast to commercial beer makers and suppliers, with sales of the homebrew version to begin this fall. Its next target customers will be those in other industries that deploy fermentation, including makers of wine and distilled spirits.

The technology could also play a role in sustaining the current rapid rise in the global popularity of craft beer, which last saw its heyday in the 1990s before flaming out.

“The last time around it was a quality control issue,” White said. “This time I think the brewers have the quality taken care of, and there’s much better education among the public about craft beer.”

Privately held White Labs, which does not disclose revenue or other financial data, employs about 100 people and now provides yeast and testing services to hundreds of brewing customers worldwide. Many of its loyal customers are among the more than 80 brewing companies – and growing — now based in San Diego County.

Since setting up shop, White Labs has been followed by several large and small craft brewers that have established operations in Miramar and neighboring Mira Mesa, including Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits, AleSmith Brewing Co. Inc. and Green Flash Brewing Co.

That area of San Diego promises to continue being a major hub of beer production. One indicator is the San Diego City Council’s recent approval of $300,000 in gradual development fee reimbursements for Ballast Point and AleSmith, for extensive upcoming expansions previously announced by both Miramar-based brewers.

East Coast Expansion Envisioned

Over the years White labs has been expanding its reach, setting up customer service operations in Boulder, Colo,, and research and development facilities adjacent to those of the graduate-level brewers program at the University of California, Davis.

Next on its agenda, White said, is scouting sites for a future production facility on the East Coast to meet rising national demand for its products.

White started the company with his then-wife, Lisa White, who has a bachelor’s degree in cell biology from UC Davis and remains a vice president at the company.

Chris White earned a doctorate in biochemistry from UC San Diego, following his bachelor’s degree in the same field from UC Davis, and he continues to teach college courses and write books and articles on brewing. White’s post-college career path has enabled him to combine two longtime passions: science and craft beer.

“I’m very lucky in that way,” White said.

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