On a sunny San Francisco afternoon, 14 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.
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 a pub due to open to the public sometime in the summer of 2017. 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. As recently as the past few months, 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 taste of science
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.
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