How Far Can Beer Science Go?
The irreverent scientists behind San Francisco’s Method Brewing, and their mission to rid the world of boring beer.
By GRACE RUBENSTEIN
On a sunny San Francisco afternoon, fourteen little beakers were lined up neatly on a butcher block in Ryan Dalton’s kitchen, containing clear tinctures of unknown intensity. Ryan, tall and ponytailed, had created their contents—dilutions of jalapeño and habanero extract—in precise gradations at his kitchen sink that afternoon, so that a bunch of friends watching the Raiders game in the next room could serve as test subjects. On a nearby counter, Ryan’s collaborator, Kenton Hokanson, had an Excel spreadsheet at the ready.
Ryan had isolated these chili oils using a lab technique called Soxhlet extraction, which forces steam through a chilled glass coil. The test about to take place was designed to gauge the level of chili heat in each extract. It was one small kitchen experiment; and, they hoped, a giant step for mankind—another leg on a scientific journey by a team of beer geeks to take this beverage to places it has never gone before.
The Method brewers have been known to collect wild yeast in cheesecloth-covered jars across San Francisco, and then isolate and cultivate the strains on petri dishes before brewing with them. Kenton once stole a jar of air from an abbey brewery in Belgium to capture its centuries-old microbes.
Gathered around the kitchen, with beers in hand, were two more bearded and T-shirted members of Ryan and Kenton’s team: a software engineer and a tech entrepreneur. Along with one other collaborator, they are the founders of Method Brewing, with plans in the works for a possible pub in San Francisco. Among the five of them they possess one neuroscience Ph.D. (and one more on its way), an advanced degree in bioinformatics, a computational physics degree, and an elite science research fellowship. They also love beer, and they assume that whatever tools they need for this adventure they can build themselves.
That probably isn’t a stretch. These brewers have been known to collect wild yeast in cheesecloth-covered jars across San Francisco, and then isolate and cultivate the strains on petri dishes before brewing with them. Kenton once stole a jar of air from an abbey brewery in Belgium to capture its centuries-old microbes. Another time, while trying to make a gin-and-tonic IPA, they calculated the surface-area-to-volume ratio of an oak gin barrel; then they cut gin-soaked chunks of oak to the same proportional size and tossed them into their fermentation tub.
Their empirical approach has led to weird and winning beers that include a mesquite-smoked kolsch, an oat stout brewed with Turkish coffee and cinnamon, a Belgian strong ale fermented with grape must and pomace, and a grapefruit shandy. Once upon a time, radical beer experiments of this sort were relatively common, but those realms went largely dark five centuries ago, almost to the day. In the year 1516, a German beer purity law restricted brewing ingredients to water, barley, and hops. Ever since then, says Eric Brown, a manager at San Francisco’s Brewcraft store, the brewing world has become obsessed with hops, and in the process forgot about all the other herbs in the garden.
Today’s craft beer resurgence is slowly rekindling old memories, which might matter now more than ever. Massive beverage corporations have been buying up smaller brands and consolidating market share, making it all the more crucial that craft brewers strengthen their niche. While alcoholic adventures such as chili beer, which is now made by dozens of breweries around the country, are an obvious example, Brown says the Method guys “are way more experimental than most brewers. They’re willing to put themselves out there with some pretty wild beers, and they pull it off.”
That’s a nice endorsement, but the Method boys are thirsty for something bigger. They’re after knowledge, on a grand scale. What new beer flavors and flavor combinations, they ask, have we not yet uncovered, simply because we haven’t asked deep enough questions? How could the boundaries of brewing technique be stretched by microbial, chemical, and physical research? And what would happen if we shared all this information? If a global crowd of beer geeks starts pooling their data, what sorts of astral flavors could we discover then?
THE SCIENCE OF TASTE
Ryan’s ground-floor apartment in NoPa (North of the Panhandle, an up and coming neighborhood near San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district) serves as the brewers’ makeshift lab. Most of Method’s experiments have been done in the apartment’s small, dimly lit kitchen, beyond which a row of bicycles lines the hallway. Ryan’s roommates (his wife, his brother, and a fellow neuroscientist) put up with the mess of flasks, beakers, pots, and tubes in exchange for free beer. All told, the team has created about 60 new beers since Kenton and Ryan fermented their first wort in 2011, while studying for their neuroscience doctorates at UC San Francisco. The reigning favorite at the moment is their Jalapeño Imperial IPA, which Eric Brown calls the best chili beer he’s ever tried. It’s also the brew that Method’s friends clamor for at parties and weddings. Today, they were going to play with it.
Chili beers are temperamental, and they appeal only to particular palates. Yet the brewers wanted to do a head-to-head test of the Jalapeño IPA against the same beer made with a touch of habanero. For the Method guys, even a beloved recipe like this one is only a basis for further experimentation. “We don’t try to make beer that everyone loves,” said Kenton, a contemplative sailor and native of Utah. “We want to make beer that 30 percent of people hate, 50 percent of people think is okay, and 20 percent of people say they don’t ever want to drink anything else.”
The kitchen smelled sweet and warm, like oatmeal, from the barley mash soaking in a huge Igloo cooler on the counter. As the brewing got under way, Ryan poured me a small beaker full of their cherry-and-apple-wood-smoked kolsch from his four-tap kegerator. A New Orleans native with an understated manner, Ryan was an undergraduate there when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his hometown. Within days, he had transferred to the University of Oregon, later making his way to San Francisco for grad school. Like his Method teammates—all Bay Area transplants—Ryan got hooked on San Francisco’s adventurous spirit, becoming an avid and dominant swimmer in the city’s chilly bay waters. The creative environment here, Ryan says, “is why I moved here to do science.”
As the timer ticked on the soaking mash, Johnny Reinsch, a recovering lawyer and the team’s entrepreneur, stepped to the kitchen counter and sipped a bit of apricot-colored habanero puree, a byproduct of the extraction, to see if it could be useful. “I think if you had too much of that,” he began, and then he paused. “Wow, my mouth is on fucking fire.” Johnny stepped toward the open back door, panting slightly. If an ingredient ever required precision, it was this one.
When Anheuser Busch InBev agreed to buy SABMiller for over $100 billion, it captured more than 70 percent of the U.S. beer market. But what really bugs the Method team is that Big Beer uses its sophisticated laboratories to perfect monotonous mass-market brews.
To prepare for this stage, the brewers had added magnesium and calcium to balance San Francisco’s low-mineral water. As they plotted the rest of the brewing process, calculating every quantity, duration, and temperature down to tiny decimal points, they had specific targets in mind: color, strength, gradients of sweetness or bitterness, and behavior on the tongue. Their Jalapeño IPA, for example, was supposed to be on the sweet side, because capsaicin, the spicy compound in chilies, is soluble in sugar water. In a sweet brew, therefore, the heat clings to your palate only briefly before it dissolves back into the beer. Ryan in particular appreciates this fact; his research at UC Berkeley—under a Miller Fellowship (no relation to the watery beer maker)—aims to uncover the neurological processes that underlie sensation.
This level of precision is not normal. At a small scale like Method’s, it’s typical to brew mostly from the gut, taking a few measurements here and there but mainly fine-tuning through trial and error. Some of that adventurousness has undoubtedly sped today’s phenomenal craft beer boom. In the late 1970s the U.S. had fewer than 100 breweries; by September 2015, their number had surged past 4,000, a figure not seen since the 1870s. This growth probably explains alcohol giant Constellation Brands’ purchase, in November 2015, of San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewery for a breathtaking $1 billion. It might also explain the warning, from CNN Money, of a potential “beer bubble.” In response to all this excitement, established craft beer leaders are starting to worry that some new brewers, in their enthusiasm, might go to market without the technical chops to make consistent, quality beer. “We don’t want people to try a few new craft beers and decide craft beer is really kind of overrated,” says Dick Cantwell, a founder of Seattle’s Elysian Brewery and now the Brewers Association’s quality ambassador.
Unfortunately, the best science that exists in the beer world, by far, is what’s used by behemoths like Anheuser Busch InBev, a 2016 conglomerate that Method considers one of its nemeses. (InBev is the heavyweight that recently agreed to buy SABMiller for over $100 billion, thereby capturing more than 70 percent of the U.S. beer market.) All of these big breweries have their own laboratories, with pricey specialized gauges and microbial gene assay tools that smaller craft brewers can only dream of. But what really bugs the Method team is that Big Beer uses these advanced controls to perfect monotonous mass-market brews—not to test the limits of invention. And the big guys don’t share their tricks. “Budweiser is way ahead of us on science,” says Kenton. “But they won’t talk about it.”
Those secrets stir in the Method brewers a very San Francisco-esque dream: a kind of David-and-Goliath scale disruption that will destroy Big Beer’s advantage and thereby level the playing field. Their slingshot? Open-source technology. The beer market is “gobbled up mostly by really bad beer,” said Johnny, now recovered from his habanero incident. “We think that should change.”
CRAFT BREWERS, UNITE!
“The biggest thing that the smallest breweries struggle with is the lack of a lab on site,” says Dave McLean, founder and brewmaster at Magnolia, a popular brewery and gastropub in San Francisco that happens to operate just across the Panhandle from Ryan’s apartment.
The science gap constrains not only small brewers’ consistency, the Method guys believe, but also their capacity for innovation, and thus the diversification of beer overall. Try making, say, a chili beer without a basic grasp of lab technique, and your drinkers might end up like Johnny with the habanero puree, running for the door. “If you understand what’s at stake in terms of not letting anything out onto the market that’s not consistent with your standard,” says McLean, “the thing you would spend a lot of money on if you could would be a lab, and you’d fill it with a lot of the things that big breweries have access to.” These are the kinds of things, in fact, that the Method brewers are working to invent cheaply and then share with the world. Several of which were on display that Sunday in Ryan’s kitchen.
Method Brewing’s inventions began with something they call the Beerulatrix—essentially an Excel spreadsheet on steroids. Lots of home brewers use spreadsheets for calculations, but this one is so technical it could make your eyes cross. (At one point, Kenton was explaining its hundreds of variables to me on his laptop when Johnny strolled by and said, “Nerd alert!”) To add to the Beerulatrix, brewer Robert Schiemann, a software engineer and the team’s bioinformatics expert, built a DIY thermoelectric chiller, made with parts from eBay and Amazon, and then wrote some code to run it. These chillers precisely control fermentation temperature—critical to flavor—and typically cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to buy commercially. Robert’s version cost roughly $150.
One of the most exciting inventions, however, was a contraption on Ryan’s countertop that looked like a high school science project: a series of wires and a circuit board stuck to a strip of black-painted lumber. This was Kenton’s prototype spectrophotometer, built with a $45 kit from the open-source science group Public Lab, plus about $20 in lasers and wood. In big-brewery labs spectrophotometers are standard issue, used to determine yeast count, hop bitterness, and beer color. But commercial versions are way out of reach for smaller operations. As with Robert’s cooler, Method plans to publish DIY spectrophotometer instructions online, free of charge. “Wow,” said Cantwell, of the Brewers Association, at the prospect of putting such a tool in the hands of small brewers. “That’s miles ahead of where people mostly are.”
As the Method brewers use such tools to invent new recipes, they want to help others get creative too. That’s where Paul Tiplady, the fifth brewer, comes in. Coding by night, after his day job writing software for telephony networks, the Scotland native is building ferment.io, Method’s open-source brewing platform. It is part recipe editor, part simplified Beerulatrix—a collaborative brewing space meant to hold a vast library of beer recipes. All of Method’s own formulas will live there, free to the world. (For a taste of what ferment.io will offer, please see the sidebar to your right. It’s a recipe for Method’s Jalapeño Imperial IPA, one of the team’s first open-source documents.)
If the thousands of brewers that populate the craft brewing community start using this tool, entering the quantifiable details of their process and their results, Method will possess an unprecedented amount of data on brewing experiments throughout the world. Big Data, meet Little Beer. “If we have a secret mission with this website, that is what it is,” Paul says. “To get the data that allows us to actually, empirically figure out what makes good beer, and with that information help [other] people make better beer.” Paul intends to analyze all the brews logged in the system, then feed any insights gained back into the site’s formulas. Et voila: a little chink in the mass-market beer giants’ competitive armor. “It doesn’t have to be Method,” Kenton says, “but it just can’t be Bud.”
IN SEARCH OF THE JALAPEÑO GRAIL
With the wort set to boiling with jalapeño skins on Ryan’s stove, it was time for the beaker test. We guinea pigs lined up and sipped each dilution, starting with the weakest, until we detected the first hint of spice (a procedure called a Scoville test). Although the liquids smelled of earthy chili, their taste was surprisingly mild. As we sipped, either shrugging or nodding with appreciation, Kenton plugged our numbers into his Excel sheet to calculate an average.
This yielded enough information for a humble brewer to set spice levels, but Method would soon have something much better. In pursuit of ultimate precision, Ryan had cloned the gene for a capsaicin receptor, then placed that gene into a line of human cells. Once he had the right microscope set up, Ryan said, he would be able to soak the cells with chili-infused liquid and then gauge the cells’ responses. And this would tell him exactly how much capsaicin his liquid contained. Kenton loves this idea. “That’s going to be great!” he said.
Even gene cloning, however, won’t slake this team’s scientific curiosity. “The endpoint isn’t some individual project,” Ryan says. “There is no endpoint.”
Scientists would describe Method’s experiments as basic, rather than applied, research. And the difference here matters. Basic research seeks to understand the way things work—knowledge for the sake of knowledge, without any specific destination in mind. For that reason it is more difficult than applied research to get funded, but sometimes it leads to really good places. Basic research has brought us GPS technology and the structure of DNA; now, the Method team sees wide possibilities in the land of flavor. “Beer is one of the most ideal model organisms in which flavor can be explored,” Robert says. “It’s relatively cheap and easy to make. It takes other flavors well. There’s a quick turnaround time. … And it gets you drunk.” Another scientist who may have understood this axiom was Louis Pasteur. He was studying beer when he discovered that microorganisms cause fermentation and spoilage—an epiphany that led to the germ theory of disease.
Basic research is also at the heart of Ryan’s work at UC Berkeley; funded for three years to research anything he wants, he is studying the way different types of sensory nerve cells arise from the single cell in which life begins. “In the same way that science at large builds a sense of wonder and promise in the world, we’re trying to build that with beer,” Ryan says. And the timing, in his view, is perfect. “The IPA was the engine behind the last wave of craft beer. There’s some undiscovered flavor combination out there that will be so approachable, so riffable, that it will drive the next great expansion in beer.”
In the end, any pursuit of new flavors necessarily involves both science and art. Jon Conner, owner of Conner Fields Brewing and the Haul gastropub in Grants Pass, Oregon, calls the two principles the inseparable yin and yang of brewing. For his part, Conner inclines more to the art side (he started his career as a three-dimensional artist and sculptor), but he studies brewing’s biochemistry constantly. In the balance between control and letting go, Conner says, “is where really incredible things happen.”
The Method guys wouldn’t argue with Conner. And science hasn’t always saved them from brewing blunders. Robert remembered one particular experiment, a Mai Tai Stout, that went terribly awry. He took some shortcuts, throwing chunks of lime into the boil rather than lime zest, and making a quick-and-dirty almond flavoring with almond milk instead of real almond syrup. The limes went bitter and the milk curdled. Robert hasn’t yet mustered the spirit to retry it with better methods. “Still recovering from that one,” he said. “That wound is still fresh.”
A few Sundays later, the results of the habanero experiment were finally ready to taste. Back in Ryan’s kitchen, he filled glasses with several of its iterations—the unadulterated Jalapeño IPA; the Jalapeño plus some of the habanero extract; and, last, the Jalapeño mixed with a Method sour beer.
The first, the plain Jalapeño IPA, smelled like fresh-cut green chilies. Its bitter chili kick was surprisingly pleasant, a smooth blend with the hoppy sweetness of the IPA. I could see why this was a Method favorite.
With test number two, the habanero, the beer smelled and tasted fruitier and brighter than the plain jalapeño version, and with barely a hint of heat on the back of the throat. It was delicious—even better than the original, for my money. “Ooo, the habanero one is super tasty. Fuck yeah,” said Robert. “I really want to go back and make the Jamaican jerk IPA with that. It’d be awesome.”
Then came test number three, the sour blend. Ryan said they had made this beer to test out a hypothesis. The capsaicin receptors in our palates are enabled by low-pH liquids, which is exactly what sour beer is. So Ryan suspected the sour addition would make the beer taste spicier than it actually is. And it did. “I don’t think anyone has tested that before,” said Ryan, with just a hint of a smile.
The original Jalapeño IPA, however, is expected to be a standby at Methodology, the brick-and-mortar brewpub that the team envisions. This venture is where Johnny’s entrepreneurial experience may be key. He’s a former mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer (which his brewing colleagues try not to hold against him) and a big booster of Bitcoin, and he’s thinking hard about how Method can distinguish itself in a crowded field of craft breweries. The open-source tools Method plans to offer the public will help, he says. However, “If we don’t put out a good product, then everything falls apart.”
For now, none of the Method brewers is quitting his day job. Thus far, their science has been supporting their beer habit. If Method Brewing succeeds, it could become the other way around.
© 2023 Grace Rubenstein. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.