Many people expected a brewery was in the offing. But despite the fact that White Labs Inc. — the business officially joining the Asheville beer community at 172 S. Charlotte St. — will have a tasting room of sorts with its own beer flowing, it is decidedly not a brewery in the traditional sense. White Labs is a wine- and beer-yeast manufacturing company.
Yet to gloss over the Jan. 9 announcement of the company’s arrival would be a mistake.
To get a sense of just how big of a deal White Labs is, picture an alternate world where there are just two large craft brewers — say, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. In this world, those are the only two national beer-making companies, and the only competition is small and intensely local. If you want a high-quality beer, you buy from those two companies or you hope there’s a small and reputable operation in your city or state.
This is the world of commercial yeast distribution: There are just two major companies that all craft brewers (and homebrewers for that matter) use for yeast — White Labs and Wyeast Laboratories Inc. Both companies started on the West Coast, where the craft brewery movement was born. White Labs is the first of the two to legitimize the East Coast’s burgeoning craft beer scene with an expansion, and it’s saying Asheville is the eastern San Diego, where White Labs launched.
White Labs changes course
Chris White started White Labs in 1995 in San Diego after finishing a Ph.D. in chemistry there.” “I’m very lucky. … I was able to combine my interests in chemistry, yeast and homebrewing into a company making yeast for breweries, wineries and distilleries,” says White, the CEO and president of the company.
White says the company started small, but in 1995, the San Diego beer scene was pretty small too, with just two breweries and one homebrew store. It has grown significantly since and is now home to about 95 breweries employing upward of 1,500 people.
White Labs has grown, too, now employing about 100 of those 1,500 at its San Diego headquarters. The company also has facilities in Davis, Calif., and Boulder, Colo.
According to White, 40 percent of the company’s customers are now on the East Coast, though, and shipping yeast costs money (and increases the company’s carbon footprint, of course). “We’ve actually been looking at an East Coast location [as part of larger worldwide expansion plans] for about 10 years,” says White. “Originally my focus was northern-centric, but some amazing things happened in Asheville.”
White says that he knew Asheville already had a great brewing culture, but the addition of industry heavyweights like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium piqued White’s interest. “The entire industry took notice, actually, [and realized] something really interesting was going on in Asheville,” he says.
What to Expect
In San Diego, White Labs’ employees make about 1,500 packages of yeast per week, covering about 100 varieties.
The Asheville site, at least for now, is projected to run at a slightly smaller scale: At full build-out, the company expects to employ 65 people and is making no claims that all the same yeasts in San Diego will also be manufactured here.
As for a timeline, White notes plans to break ground in March. “Phase 1 is developing the second floor, which will be our shipping, receiving and logistics,” says White. “Phase 2, which starts in August, will add an extension [taking the building from 26,000 square feet to about 32,000 square feet], which is where the tasting room will be, as well as the chemistry lab and classroom. At the same time, we’ll develop the first floor, which will house manufacturing, yeast lab and bacteria and Brettanomyces lab. That should be completed in mid-2016.”
All said and done, the company plans to invest $8.1 million building a state-of-the art biotech facility near downtown.
For many in Asheville, including Mayor Esther Manheimer, the company’s tilt towards biotech just might be the most exciting part of the announcement. “As a world leader in fermentation sciences for the brewing and winemaking industries, White Labs represents the type of advanced biotech and technology company we’re strategically seeking,” says Manheimer.
“We’re confident that White Labs’ investment in renovating this building and revitalizing Charlotte Street will catalyze additional private investment in our community and attract more high-tech and biotech companies that recognize what White Labs has: Asheville is a world-class city and home to world-class companies.”
Manheimer couldn’t resist throwing in a gracious pun: “We want to welcome White Labs to our city. … It’s the yeast we could do.”