Yep it is true. All three yeast brands are derived from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and are, for all purposes, the same yeast. Even John Palmer, author of How to Brew references them as the same:
“American, Californian, or Chico Ale,
A very "clean" tasting yeast, less esters than other types of ale yeast. Good for just about any type of ale. This strain usually derives from that used for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Medium attenuation, medium flocculation. Suggested fermentation temperature is 68°F.”
So is there a benefit to one over the other? Well it depends who you ask. If you ask a home brewer that has been brewing for 20+ years, they will probably tell you to stay away from dry yeast at all costs. If you ask a home brewer that has been brewing for 10+ years they will tell you that White Labs or Wyeast is the only way to go, depending on what they started out on, but if you talk to a new brewer, they will tell you that you should use whatever you would like. But who is right? Well, in my experience, nobody is really wrong.
The truth is if you home brewed 20 years ago, you probably struggled to get a good yeast, and or cultivated it yourself for something that was high quality and had predictable results. Dry yeast didn't have the quality or diversity that it has today.
According to their websites Wyeast started selling yeast almost 10 years before White Labs, but it is my impression, that for whatever reason many home brew supply stores carried White Labs almost exclusively during the late 90s, and I think this led to some brand loyalty from the home brewing community that finally had both a good supply and good variety of quality yeast.
These days most home brew supply stores carry both brands of liquid yeast, plus dry yeast strains, which have come a long way since the early 80s, both in quality and in variety, so how do you know what to pick.
Well, if the same strain is available in all three, let me give you the benefits of all the brands, so you can choose for yourself.
#1. Pitch Rate (how many yeast cells are available in a pack)- Wyeast 100 billion (at time of packaging)
- White Labs 100 billion (at time of packaging)
- Safale US-05 200 billion (does not degrade over time)
Why you should care. Pitching the correct amount of yeast cells into your beer will help you with a few things. It will give you a good quick and healthy start to your fermentation which helps protect it from infection, helps to provide a thorough fermentation, and limits the amount of fruity esters created in your beer. The recommended pitch rate for a 1.048 starting gravity is 180 billion cells. So, since the cell count of liquid diminishes over time, by the time you get a packet or vial, you are probably around 80-90% of the viability, meaning it is a really good idea to buy two packs, or do a yeast starter. The cell count of dry yeast does not diminish noticeably over time, so you are good to go with one pack.
#2. Price (The amount of money you spend on the same strain of yeast)- Wyeast $6-8
- White Labs $6-8
- Safale $3-5
Why you should care. Well, money doesn't grow on trees, and dry yeast is roughly half the price for twice the product.
#3. Viability (Is there live and active yeast available to start fermenting beer?)- Wyeast smack pack (Yeast nutrient in inflatable pack will start live yeast producing CO2, which lets you know there is still viable yeast for pitching, or making a starter)
- White Labs vial (Clear vial lets you see yeast, but exposes yeast to light also. No way to tell if what you see is viable)
- Safale US-05 vacuum sealed package (Light and oxygen barrier pack keeps freeze dried yeast stable and doesn't need to be refrigerated, and will last a long time)
Why you should care. While there are dates printed on each brand, you don't know exactly what kind of conditions the yeast has been exposed to before you got it. Knowing that you have viable yeast can save you a lot of time and heart ache. There are few things worse than pitching your yeast, even in a starter, and having nothing happen.
#4. Flavor (This is, after all, why we brew beer in the first place)
Why you should care. Because you want to have predictable and consistent results, so you can make your favorite beer again and again.
So, for my time and money, paying $7 or so for two packs of US-05 for an Imperial IPA vs, doing a two step starter, or paying roughly $35 for 5 packs of liquid, just can't be beat.
Want to save even more money and have the correct pitch rate? Just start saving some of your yeast from the trub of your last batch of beer. Use it over and over again... more on that to come.