Grain, hops, yeast and water — those are the basic ingredients of brewing beer. But yeast may be the most overlooked essential ingredient.
People talk about hops and flavor, but did you know that various yeast strains impart flavor in an important way? As an experiment, try a flight of brews at the Asheville White Labs Kitchen & Tap using the same base beer, fermented with different yeast strains. It’s an eye opener into the flavor-enhancing world of tiny organisms called yeast.
White Labs, the San Diego-headquartered global distributor of pure liquid yeast, is at the forefront of brewing and distilling science, and the company chose Asheville for its East coast lab and its first restaurant.
“We knew we needed an East coast facility,” said White Labs vice president Lisa White. “But we wanted a location consistent with our corporate way of life and a supportive beer community. Asheville, with its active brewing community, outdoorsy lifestyle and community orientation was a great choice. It’s a marriage of community, brewers and the city.”
White Labs purchased a South Charlotte Street building, formerly a 1908 tobacco barn, later Asheville city offices. In 2017, White Labs opened its Asheville labs and restaurant in the refurbished building. It’s already a popular addition to the culture of Asheville.
It’s all about the yeast
“People don’t think of yeast as a primary ingredient, but anything fermented has yeast, including wine, champagne, sake, hard cider, spirits and beer,” White said. “I have admiration for the tiny yeast organism.”
White Labs strives to make the purest liquid yeast and best services and education for professionals and enthusiasts, across all fermented food and beverage industries.
“Yeast is a loving organism, White said. “You have to take care of it. Yeast strains don’t like it too hot or too cold.”
Take the informative White Labs tour, starting in the lab, with a discussion of how yeast strains start in a cryogenic freezer -80 degrees.
Chris Genua, the general manager of the Asheville taproom, talked about the yeast strains ‘chillin’ out’ until they are needed. Lab scientists take out a few cells (which are actually billions of cells), put them on a small slide, then feed the yeast with wort (unfermented beer). As the yeast grows, White Labs uses its sterile, patented PurePitch ® process to grow yeast strains what will be the final plastic bag packaging. Cleanliness and sanitation are always at the forefront at White Labs.
“It’s super cool,” Genua said.
Public tours are at 3 p.m., seven days a week and private tours can be arranged.
White Labs Kitchen & Tap is White Labs’ first restaurant. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, the restaurant is gaining popularity quickly.
The menu is inventive, showcasing brewer’s yeast in wood-fired pizzas, made with White Labs liquid yeast, house-made fermented sauces, fresh salads and other beer-infused dishes and desserts. Head chef Evan Timmons cooks up an interesting menu, headlined by a best-selling poutine with lactobacillus-brined fries, French gravy and cedar cheese curds. The lacto brine gives the fries a great-tasting crispy exterior and a perfectly done interior.
Other popular items are the Margherita wood-fired pizza, made with White Lab’s special brewers’ yeast dough and the hot chicken sandwich, with a brioche bun made of the same White Lab’s specially-produced dough.
“We always knew we wanted to do some crazy fermentation beer stuff with food.” White said. “Some of the crazy things we serve are fermented squash and the fries brined in lactobacillus.”
White said that before the advent of quick-rising pizza dough, brewers’ yeast was used in pizza crust. It’s a long process, but it proceeds a light, fluffy tasty crust.
Genua described the four-day process to make the kitchen’s pizza crust with brewer’s yeast. The special pizza dough starts with White Labs’ English Ale yeast; the poolish does a slow rise in a cooler for three days before it’s pulled out to slowly come to room temperature, then baked in the kitchen’s wood-fired oven.
“We like to do things differently than the mainstream restaurants,” White said.
The 3,000 sq.-ft. restaurant seats 70 in the indoor space and another 2,200 square-feet of outdoor space is being developed. The front patio, which will seat an additional 40 people, will be ready in spring, followed by a bier garden in the back next year.
There are 28 rotating taps with White Labs brews and guest beers. If craft beer isn’t to your liking, the restaurant has a full bar, serving wine and specialty cocktails. A children’s menu is available, too.
The Asheville complex has a small pilot brewing system and plans to ramp up local brewing as operations grow. Try the AVL Inaugural Rye Saison, the first brew from the Asheville facility, at the restaurant.
Everything is done with a nod to science at White Labs Kitchen & Tap. Visitors will notice the light fixtures make of Erlenmeyer flasks, used in chemistry and in the yeast production lab. The beer menu is chock-full of information about the yeast strain used, ABV, IBUs and flavor profiles. As an added plus to the experience, there is ample parking in the back.
The White Labs Kitchen & Tap will be open for Super Bowl. Genua said there will be party food including Philly cheese steak for the Eagles’ fans and a clam dip for the Patriots’ fans.
While classes at White Labs have been focused on professional and home-brewers, there will be a food and beer pairing class in March. Check the White Labs website for information as it becomes available.
People who attend the classes will get a dose of science, as microscopes are used to see various yeast strains up close and personally.
“White Labs stands at the intersection of science, education and craft,” White said. “We’re constantly striving for perfection, and in the process continually raising the bar in the art of fermentation.”
White Labs is at 172 S. Charlotte St., Asheville. Call 828-974-3880 (labs) or 828 974-3868 (restaurant). For product information, visit www.whitelabs.com/locations/white-labs-asheville; to see the restaurant menu and beer list, visit www.whitelabs.com/locations/white-labs-kitchen-tap.
By Carol Viau