Yeast is a magical creature. Fans of Alton Brown’s show “Good Eats” have been entertained many times by his yeasty sock puppets munching on sugars and belching out carbon dioxide bubbles. Ever since man first learned to harness this helpful bug, he’s been using it to leaven his bread, and provide buzz to his wine, mead and beer.
San Diegans are fortunate to be neighbors to White Labs, the largest American yeast distributor. If you’re a San Diego home brewer, chances are you’ve used a vial of White Labs yeast, and many of the West Coast’s commercial brewers use it as well. White Labs isn’t just a regional distributor either, they can get yeast anywhere in the United States or 30 other countries within 72 hours.
A bonus to having White Labs in the neighborhood is their tasting room, which allows them to showcase what can be done with their products. On Thursday, White Labs partnered up with Portland’s Widmer Brothers Brewing Company to show just how much influence this little creature has on your beer.
Most wheat beer fans are quite familiar with Widmer Brothers’ Hefeweizen. Hefeweizens are the first step that many people take away from the “fizzy yellow stuff” into the world of flavorful craft beers, and Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen is a great choice. Two fish tacos and a glass of hefeweizen is a fine way to spend a summer evening.
Thursday’s event featured a flight of five tasters designed to show what a difference different strains of yeast can make. The first, a taster of Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen sets the baseline, and then four additional tasters show how a beer made with the exact same ingredients completely changes when you use different strains of yeast. While some of the differences may have been more subtle than others, each variant was definitely a completely different beer.
If the five tasters of hefeweizen weren’t enough, Widmer Brothers also brought several other beers for sampling. For those who like the darker side of beer, Widmer Brothers Chocolate Russian Imperial Stout and Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout were two examples of restraint in a style that has a tendency to be syrupy sweet. Their Brrrrbon winter warmer spends time fermenting in bourbon barrels, which imparted a pleasant bourbon flavor and aroma without overpowering the malt.
Two of the more interesting beers available were their Alchemy Ale and Marionberry Hibiscus Gose. Alchemy is Widmer Brothers’ newest year-round beer, and it’s a showcase of their proprietary Alchemy hop blend. A pleasant hop aroma gives way to a flavor that manages to be hoppy and smooth at the same time.
Marionberry Hibiscus Gose is Widmer Brothers’ take on a traditional German wheat beer that’s brewed with salt. Marionberries – the fruit, not the “Mayor for life” of Washington D.C. – and dried hibiscus give this beer a hue that’s somewhere between purple and red, and a fruity aroma. The flavor is crisp with a nice tartness.
White Labs’ tasting room was the perfect setting to showcase the effect of yeast on beer. The bar area is an excellent illustration of how much science goes into brewing great beer. Portraits of scientific instruments line the walls, and the light fixtures are re-purposed Erlenmeyer flasks. If only schools taught how science leads to beer, kids would probably pay better attention.