The Science of Suds: Interview with Neva Parker from White Labs

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White Labs needs no introduction to homebrewers. As one of the largest providers of brewing yeast in the United States, all of us at one time or another have used their products. Founded way back in 1995 by President and CEO Chris White, their mission has been simple to sum up, though perhaps not so simple to accomplish: to provide, save, and develop scores of high quality yeast strains for the more than 1.2 million homebrewers (and counting) in the United States, and countless more beyond.
We recently had an opportunity to catch up with Neva Parker, White Labs’ VP of Operations, to talk about her unusual road into the world of brewing, how science and brewing intersect, and how homebrewers can get the most out of their experimentation.
Neva came to the world of brewing by way of science rather than by beer. With a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, she joined the White Labs team in 2003 and has played a vital role in what they do ever since. She is a member of the American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC), Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA), and others. Here’s what she had to say:

Homebrew Talk: Tell me a little about who you are and your role with the company.

Neva Parker: I am currently the VP of operations at White Labs. I started in 2003 as a lab technician, so I’ve worked into different roles over these last 13 or 14 years, currently just managing the operations side.

HBT: Is it fair to say that science led you to beer as opposed to beer leading you to science?

NP: It did. I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in general biology with the intention of going to medical school and becoming a doctor. That obviously took a little twist in the road.

HBT: Would you say it was a fun twist?

NP: (Laughs) It is, actually. I tell people I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon White Labs if I had done what I intended to do. I had taken a year off just to find myself and decide what career path I really did want to take, and that timing just happened to work out because there was an open position at White Labs.
I really didn’t know anything about the company when I applied, but when I showed up to the facilities for my interview they were still a very small company. (President and founder) Chris White was sitting at the reception desk filling in for their receptionist. I chatted with him a lot about what the company was, how it all started, and that really piqued my interest. As I went into the interview, I really wanted to talk more about the yeast side of beer, because it just seemed like a very interesting job.

HBT: Now that you’ve been there for so many years and have become one of the major faces of the company, have you gotten a little of the brewing bug? Have you done some brewing yourself?

NP: Yeah. It was one thing we used to do a lot when I first started. My job was very different then than it is now, so I had some more time to find what I wanted to do in brewing.
I started out just doing a kit batch, because I really wanted to learn about it when I first got the job. At least personally, I felt like it was really important to at least understand what it was all about so I could focus on making a good product and tie that into what I did every day on the job. It kind of progressed from there. I’ve brewed quite a bit over the years, though over the last three to four years I really haven’t done much in the way of brewing. I’ve done it maybe once or twice. I miss it to some extent, but I’m also around it all the time.

HBT: Given the unique way you got involved in the beer world, does the way you approach brewing differ from the way “normal” homebrewers approach brewing, and if so, how?

NP: That’s a good question. I think to some extent it probably does because I started out as a professional in the industry without really knowing anything about it, so my interest in it wasn’t as a hobby or because I thought it would be fun to brew, I got into brewing because it was my job, and I really wanted to know more about it. I feel like I’m probably the opposite of how the majority of people get into homebrewing. I think that gives me some unique perspective in that it was more of an investigative kind of way of looking at homebrewing.
What’s probably missing in that equation, what most hobbyist have, is that passion for homebrewing and really wanting to be experimental and try new things and really perfect their recipes. Those are all things that I’ve done, but probably in a different way than most homebrewers.

HBT: Homebrewers know White Labs because White Labs provides much of the yeast we use, and I know you do brewing in house -- you even recently opened a tasting room -- but your staff is brewing for different reasons than we’re brewing. Talk to me a little about that, about your tasting room and the intent behind that project.

NP: It’s a similar thing. I think our brewers are sort of the best of both of those worlds. I think they’re very passionate about brewing and they love brewing no matter what, whether they were brewing here or not. I think the added benefit of brewing here at White Labs is that they also get to experiment in a very scientific way.
The concept of the tasting room is really to be able to give the public an insight into the different yeast strains that we have. These are things we talked about for years. We told people that depending on the strain they used they would get a very different beer. Yeast has such a big impact on the flavor characteristics of beer, so choosing the right or wrong strain can make a really great beer or a really bad beer. You have to really know your yeast. It’s really difficult for people to understand that concept without experiencing it, so when we opened the tasting room that was the idea, to bring that concept to the people so they could have the same experience that we had in working with all these yeast strains without having to do all the legwork on their own.

HBT: You actually just touched on something I was going to ask next: is that something you had already been doing behind the scenes, brewing these different batches of beer and just seeing what the results would be?

NP: Yes, absolutely, that’s what we were doing behind the scenes, we just didn’t have an avenue to showcase it. That’s where the concept of the tasting room really came from.
We started off doing just lab-scale batches where we were doing small fermentations using different strains, then we’d have a small tasting panel. We scaled up from there to a 20-gallon brew system that we brewed on, and we’d do the same thing. Twenty gallons, we’d split the batch up into four- or five-gallon fermentations with different yeasts, and then we’d have a few kegs of beer sitting around that we’d taste, but nowhere to really show people.
I took some of those beers to some of the various homebrew festivals. At the time there was the Southern California Homebrew Fest. I used to take four kegs there and do that experiment, but we weren’t a licensed taster and had no way of bringing it to the masses, so it was all very small.

HBT: It sounds like it was a much more hands-on teaching and learning experience for people. So, to shift to another topic, cloning commercial beers has been a mainstay of homebrewing since it was first legalized back in 1978. To what extent do you guys work with commercial breweries, and are any of your yeast strains cultivated from the exact same strains those breweries are using?

NP: We do work with breweries a lot directly on their yeast strains, not so much developing those strains, but either choosing their house strain or working with them to bank and take care of their house strains.
The number of strains we’ve had directly from a commercial brewery and then commercialized to sell, there’s probably only a few that we licensed, where we approached the brewery and said, “Can we sell your strain?” In almost all of those cases it was decided to keep that more discrete. We didn’t say, “Oh it was this brewery or that brewery.” But it’s happened with a handful of strains.

HBT: So when people are using one of your strains to clone Beer A or Beer B, that strain just has very similar characteristics to what the brewery itself is using?

NP: Exactly.

HBT: The science behind these little critters is key to what you guys do. What are some of the ways homebrewers can experiment with yeast to create new and unique beers? Is it possible for homebrewers to create their own unique strains?

NP: Development of strains is pretty difficult to do. I think the way most homebrewers do it is that you keep a strain that you purchased from a commercial bank, whether it’s us or someone else, and you just use it over and over and over again without going back to an original source, eventually just re-pitching that yeast so many times that over time there’s natural mutations to the strain so that it becomes slightly different.
The strains, the way they’ve developed over time, there’s natural selection in the way they’re handled, so they’re always probably slightly different from what they once were. That’s how most of the changes occur. That’s how a homebrewer could do it if they wanted to.
The risk you run with something like that, though, is that you may end up getting something that’s just not very good in terms of fermentation or in terms of flavor. So, it’s riskier. We don’t do a lot of that ourselves. We just for the most part go hunting for strains in various historical banks to find what we’re looking for, but it happens from time to time.
I see it happen with commercial brewers from time to time, where they’ve just used this strain so much that it’s kind of developed into something else naturally, and then they want that to be banked and kept with us because they don’t want to go back to what it originally was.

HBT: That’s really, I don’t know if “luck” is the right word, but that seems like a matter of luck. The yeast doing what they’re doing, and a brewer saying, “Eureka, this is better than what it was before, this is better than we expected.”

NP: Right.

HBT: It’s not really something you can control?

NP: It can be controlled if you have the right tools, but it’s really difficult to do on most scales that people would be trying this on.

HBT: Got it. These days, one of the big things in the craft beer scene is that people want a career in beer, but not everyone necessarily dreams of brewing. What can they learn from White Labs as far as potential career opportunities in the world of beer go that don’t involve being a brewer?

NP: I think we have some unique opportunities for that exact reason. It’s still a job in the beer industry, there’s a lot of growth in this industry, and it provides some other avenues for people who are interested in beer but don’t necessarily want to brew. We’ve got lab positions, we’ve got analytical positions, we’ve got quality control, packaging, shipping, manufacturing, and tasting room, sales, and there’s tons of administrative positions. I think it’s a wide range of skill sets that help to run any business, and this one in particular because it happens to be in such a fun industry that a lot of people are looking for now.
An average sized festival may have 100-200 beers to try, with very large festivals far exceeding that number.

HBT: Yeast is your thing, so this is probably going to be really easy for you, but make the case for us: why is yeast the most important of beer’s four main ingredients?

NP: I love that question, because while there are very important ingredients in beer – the malt, the hops, water, and obviously you can’t really make a good tasting beer without good quality ingredients – but if you don’t have yeast, there’s no beer. I mean, it’s not even possible to have beer without yeast.
That’s one critical factor, of course. Yeast is not only important for that reason, but because it just contributes so much to the complexity of the beer itself. It’s producing well over 500 flavor compounds in the beer, some that we would not even be able to detect or name because they’re in such small amounts, but without them it’s going to lack in some of that full complexity that we know of as beer.
I’ve seen people try to make beer from dehydrated extract and then adding food grade ethanol to it just to see if you could make something that tasted like beer as we know it, and it’s just not the same. It’s going to be just one note without all of those characteristics contributed by a live organism, which is the only live organism in the brewing process.

HBT: To wrap things up, what is one yeast-related tip or technique or idea that homebrewers reading this should try that they don’t always see in all the usual guides to homebrewing?

NP: That’s a good question. There are so many things. You know, this isn’t necessarily a secret; I have talked about it before, but I like to point out that there is a general consensus among homebrewers that a starter is always necessary with any yeast. While I don’t necessarily disagree, what I always try to guide people towards is the right way to make a starter, or at least understanding that a starter in and of itself is not growing a whole bunch of new yeast. I think that’s just a misconception that people have about starters in general. You know, “I’m just going to take a package of yeast that I buy, throw it into a one- or two-liter starter, and I’m just going to double or triple or quadruple the amount of yeast that I have,” but that’s just not true. There’s not enough food and nutrients there to have that happen.
Essentially, a starter is beneficial in that it wakes the yeast up, it gets their metabolism going so that by the time you add it, your fermentation is going to be kick started because the yeast is already active. I think that’s one thing to always remember. It’s not absolutely necessary to have a starter every time unless you’re brewing high gravity beers. If you want to make a starter, just keep in mind that you’re not getting a ton of yeast growth, it’s mostly just an activation process.
HBT: As a somewhat lazy homebrewer who rarely makes starters except when I’m brewing high gravity beers, that’s very gratifying to hear! Thanks so much for taking some time out of your day to talk to us. Cheers.
Eric San Juan
Good to hear about yeast starters. I've been using vitality starters, where I put it on the stir plate four hours before I pitch.
Enjoyed reading - cool to heard a different perspective about the industry and the hobby.
And thanks for the comments on the use of starters!
A couple of things:
I've been to the taproom at WL and found the concept to be a great opportunity to learn, but the staff was not very helpful. There were only a few customers in at the time and there were two staff members present but they didn't seem to be interested in discussing/educating etc. Disclosure: this was three years ago, maybe things have improved.
I would like to learn more about the yeast growth subject. I was always under the impression that yeast growth was the main reason for the starter. Even on the WL package the directions state that you need less yeast packs with a starter. What gives here?
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