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Smarter with each pour

Learn about yeasts, enzymes, and brut IPA

A hefeweizen, brut IPA, and breakfast stout at the White Labs tasting room
  • A hefeweizen, brut IPA, and breakfast stout at the White Labs tasting room

There’s an oft repeated myth in our country that alcohol kills brain cells. Not only is that claim bunk, but in some instances, drinking a few beers can actually make you smarter. Case in point: a visit to the White Labs tasting room.

The home grown White Labs has built an international business cultivating yeasts and other microbes for alcohol producers all over the planet, and a few years back it installed its own brewhouse to demonstrate different yeasts to its customers. But it doesn’t take a brewing background to appreciate the roster of beers made in its Miramar brewhouse; only a little curiosity.

Belly up to the bar at White Labs and you’ll see a menu of beers split into groups according to style. For example, on a recent visit, I found four beers under the heading wheat beer. Each was made using the same recipe, with one difference: the strain of yeast used to ferment it.

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Fermented Pairings: Before and After

When you order a tasting flight here, the point is to try at least two from each style of beer to compare how each yeast creates a different final beer. I started in the wheat beer menu, comparing a version made with German hefeweizen yeast, to an American one. True to style, the German strain yielded the characteristic banana and clove aromas of a traditional hef. The American strain mutes those flavors to produce the somewhat cleaner tasting American wheat ale.

Other results are less predictable. For example, two versions of a White Labs breakfast stout — an oatmeal stout with coffee — relied on the difference between a so-called British ale yeast and London ale yeast. In its yeast catalog, White Labs describes the British as accentuating malt characteristics, while the London yields drier, oaky character that allows more bitterness to show. In this stout, I tasted more roasty chocolate flavors with the British ale yeast, while the London strain brought the coffee notes forward.

Tasting these distinctions was fun, but the top reason for my visit this afternoon was to try a new beer style only a handful of San Diego breweries have begun to experiment with: the brut IPA. Originating in San Francisco, it was named in reference to brut champagne: that famously ultra-dry classification of sparkling wine.

The professed goal of a brut IPA is to be as dry and light in body as a champagne, while still effusing hop aromas. But to do that the yeast needs a little help from an amylase enzyme.

Found naturally in human saliva and digestive organs, amylase enzymes break starches down into simple sugars the body can absorb. They basically do the same thing in beer. Yeast consumes sugar, but not starch, and the sweet malt flavor usually found in beer comes from those complex sugars the yeast couldn’t eat. However, using the enzyme, virtually all of the sugar in the wort can be converted to alcohol, resulting in the driest beer possible..

White Labs made a brut IPA using its own enzyme product, Ultra Ferm, with its number one yeast: California ale yeast. Lab testing showed the resulting beer had a final gravity of zero-degrees Plato, meaning it effectively contains the same dissolved sugar ratio as a pure glass of water.

In other words, the effervescent beer had the body of a sparkling water, despite weighing in at 8-percent alcohol. Light bitterness and floral dry-hop aromas told me this was an IPA, but the exquisite lightness made it as easy to drink as a can of La Croix.

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I have to admit I'm hooked on La Croix Lemon.

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