White Labs - 35%
East Coast Yeast - 7%
Fermentis - 7%
Danstar - 2%
Wild Microbes - 0% (4)
Brewing Science Institute - 0% (3)
Lalvin - 0% (1)
Red Star - 0% (1)
Of course choosing a favorite yeast lab is like picking a favorite restaurant, there is never one that does everything best. Rather than selecting a yeast based on the lab, what I really do is pick the best strain for the beer that I am brewing. With that said, there are certainly some labs whose cultures tend to make better beers than others.
The first question to answer is, do you want a dry or liquid strain? I tend to keep dry yeast in my fridge as a backup for when a liquid culture fails, or I wake up in the mood to brew. While there are some great dry strains from Fermentis especially (and Danstar to a lesser extent) they represent only a few of the hundreds of strains available as liquid cultures. This is especially true when it comes to more expressive strains like saison, and weizen etc. I also find the clean strains to be not quite as clean as their liquid alternatives. Dry yeast is a great option for beers with a strong malt or hop character, or for beginners who do not want to bother with making starters (although as someone pointed out the last time I suggested the same thing, according to Fermentis’ own material their 11.5 g sachets start with a minimum of only about 60% of the cells of the liquid cultures - although other sources put the actual number as high as double). I realize that homebrewers in some places, especially those who live in other countries, don’t have easy/cheap access to liquid cultures, but in most cases I find them more reliable.
When it comes to the liquid strains, as a general rule, I like Wyeast more than White Labs. I have had better luck with WY1728 than WLP028, WY3787 compared to WLP530, and WY1968 over WLP002. For Brett I also tend to prefer Wyeast (especially their super-cherry forward Brett lambicus WY5526 compared to the horsey White Labs WLP653). There are strains I prefer from White Labs, like WLP833 Bock Lager and WLP650 Brett clausenii, but in general when the two labs offer the “same” strain I tend to prefer the Wyeast version. The cell counts are similar for the ale/lager yeast strains, so I’m not sure if the differences in the results are due to propagation technique, packaging, particular isolate, or some other factor. For the Brett on the other hand Wyeast starts with ~25X the number of cells as White Labs, making their cultures ideal for making 100% Brett beers.
I’m done hyping East Coast Yeast until they seriously increase production. The last shipment Al dropped off sold out less than 10 minutes after the announcement email went out! I need his crazy bug blends for myself! Brewing Science Institute banks some interesting strains as well (including Brett brux var. Drie, as isolate from 3 Fonteinen that is being used heavily by Russian River, Ithaca, Avery, and several other craft breweries). While BSI only sells commercial sized pitches, White Labs will be releasing their version of Drie this summer as WLP644 Brett bruxellensis Trois.
I am excited about the way my first, now year old, wild microbe fermented beer is tasting. The primary fermentation was strong, and the earthy funk that took over after the initial tropical fruit is good enough that I made it the primary component in the gueuze blend I sent to National Homebrew Contest (on its own the acidity is still too soft). I am also impressed by what American breweries like Jolly Pumpkin and Russian River are accomplishing with their spontaneously fermented beers (I still have not tried any of the true Allagash Coolship beers). In fact, I’m so interested in the topic that I am writing an article on American spontaneous fermentation that will appear in an issue of BYO Magazine in a couple months. However, the time, effort, and risk that goes into fermenting with wild microbes keeps them as an occasional thing for me.
The only time I use wine yeast (other than in wine or the odd experiment) is for bottle conditioning sour beers. Wine yeast from Lalvin and Red Star (which I just realized is tied to Fermentis) tend to be cheap, acid tolerant, and decently flocculent. I am still mixed on the red wine yeast fermented Flemish red I brewed last year; sometimes samples of it have a wonderful clean fruity flavor, while others come across as yeasty and muddy.
It is a great time to be brewing beer in America with so many yeast (and bacteria) strains available. While I enjoy the seasonal releases from Wyeast and White Labs, it would be nice if they gave us access to all of the strains year-round (as breweries do).