Meet the mad scientists of B.C. craft beer

Many B.C. craft brewers were, in fact, scientists in their previous lives.

Many B.C. craft brewers were, in fact, scientists in their previous lives.

Contrary to what your local craft brewery’s Instagram feed might suggest, making beer is anything but glamorous. There are no poignant shafts of light to catch motes of dust floating in the air – just fluorescent tubes incessantly flickering overhead.

It’s long, hot, backbreaking work. And it’s dangerous! There are thousands of litres of boiling wort, pressurized gases, confined spaces and metal bits and pieces jutting out in every direction. There’s all this math and chemistry involved, too, and that’s no fun either.

Except, that for a certain breed of individual, it is fun.

Ask any brewer what they love about their job, and they will likely tell you it’s the thrill of experimentation, the satisfaction of creating something from scratch, the challenge of taking something and constantly refining it to make it better, and, of course, the joy in sampling and sharing your own handiwork.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many B.C. craft brewers were, in fact, scientists in their previous lives. After decades in academia, they traded Bunsen burners and centrifuges for mash tuns and brew kettles. Today in their beer laboratories, they conduct their experiments, combining water, grain, hops and yeast to create delicious craft beer, using many of the same scientific skills and techniques they used in their previous careers.

James Walton, the "mad scientist" behind Storm Brewing. Dan Toulgoet photo

James Walton, the “mad scientist” behind Storm Brewing. Dan Toulgoet photo

James Walton, Storm Brewing

It has been said that a messy office is the sign of creative mind, so judging by the looks of James Walton’s shambolic workspace, the man is a certified genius. There are beakers of tinctures and extracts sitting on every available surface, and the ground is near ankle-deep with a tangled detritus of hoses, buckets and random brewing equipment.

Here in his laboratory at the north end of Commercial Drive, Walton has not-so-quietly become a visionary force in the B.C. craft beer scene over the past 20-plus years.

Walton has never been shy about letting his freak flag fly. With his spiked hair, platform KISS boots, and leather everything, he definitely puts the “mad” in “mad scientist” – and that’s just the way he likes it.

As a bored teen in Port Alberni, Walton first began experimenting with beer after reading about brewing in an encyclopedia, of all places. He managed to malt his own barley and eventually created something resembling beer. It was barely drinkable, but it had alcohol in it, and for a 15-year-old without a fake ID, that was good enough.

Walton eventually earned a degree in mycology from UBC (yeast is a fungus, after all), going on to manage a massive mushroom farming operation in the Fraser Valley before moving on to the much cleaner environment of pharmaceutical manufacturing.

But, as exciting and lucrative as pumping out intravenous bags and cough syrup was, Walton’s passion lay elsewhere.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy, because no one else was doing craft beer back then,” he says. “But within a few months I knew I’d be successful.”

Unlike many other breweries, Storm Brewing started small and is determined to stay that way. Walton estimates he’s brewed more than 250 different beers since he first opened in 1994 and, thanks to the size of his operation, he’s able to oversee each and every batch.

“I don’t want to take over the world,” Walton says. “I just don’t want to sit in an office.”

Walton says he draws upon his scientific training, particularly his background in organic chemistry, on a daily basis. And nowhere is his penchant for experimentation more evident than in Glacial Mammoth Extinction, believed to be Canada’s strongest beer. Walton ice distills the beer, slowly freezing it so flat ice crystals form and settle out. The end result is sweet and syrupy, not unlike port wine, and weighs in at a hefty 25% ABV.

Being a mad scientist of craft beer also has its perks, he notes. In addition to being able to wear leather pants to work, there weren’t any journalists showing up on his doorstep to interview him when he was farming mushrooms.

“I don’t mind the spotlight,” he says with a wry grin. “There’s definitely a glam aspect to it that I like.”

 

Bart Larson, Mt. Begbie Brewing

To hear Mt. Begbie Brewing owner and brewmaster Bart Larson tell it, his decision to pursue a career in science sounds like it was motivated by having nothing better to do.

“Yeah, I don’t know how I got into science,” he says. “It was more of an aptitude thing, I guess. I was in high school and I preferred science to art at least, you know. I just enjoyed mathematics, chemistry, physics.”

He’s just being modest, of course. Larson didn’t just “get into science.” He holds a PhD in nuclear physics and has worked on some of the world’s most advanced particle accelerators in his quest to discover the secrets of the universe. For real.

So what made him decide to leave the Los Alamos National Laboratory and return to his hometown of Revelstoke and open a brewery, you ask?

“I’m a B.C. boy,” Larson says. “Growing up here, you just can’t think of anywhere better.”

Since there weren’t a lot of nuclear physicist jobs in Revelstoke (shocker, I know), he decided to turn his lifelong hobby of brewing into a business.

For Larson, brewing has always appealed to his analytical side, and he admits he’s “probably more of a scientific brewer than an artsy kind of brewer.”

“Scientists, we like technology, and we’re not afraid to experiment, and we like solving problems and troubleshooting, so I think that’s why brewing appeals to us,” he says. “It’s that manner of thinking. You’ve been taught this way, like, this is how to approach a problem. Knowing the scientific method and how to troubleshoot a problem, isolate a variable and do a proper series of tests, you can figure out what you really need to know or what’s really going on.

“Plus, you’re making beer, which is great!”

Category 12's Michael Kuzyk has a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry. Meghan Kirkpatrick photo

Category 12’s Michael Kuzyk has a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry. Meghan Kirkpatrick photo

Michael Kuzyk, Category 12 Brewing

With a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry, Category 12 owner and brewer Michael Kuzyk’s work in the field of human disease research helped to advance the understanding of cancer and metabolic disorders. But after years of working his way up the research ladder, he found himself at a point where he wasn’t really doing anything scientific any more.

“My research career kind of forced me into more of an administrative role,” he explains. “I was away from the lab and I felt like I was really missing out on that experimental day-to-day work. I was just really 100 per cent writing grants and doing administrative work.”

He had an outlet, though. Kuzyk had started making beer as a poor grad student in the 1990s because he couldn’t afford it otherwise. Lacking any scientific challenges at work, he found himself falling down the homebrewing rabbit hole as it helped scratch that scientific itch his previous desk job could not.

“My friends were always kind of joking – I thought they were joking, I guess – that I should open up my own brewery,” says Kuzyk “Then I’d just kind of laugh it off, like, how do you do that? But I felt the need to kind of reinvent myself, you know, as I got to midlife crisis range, and I began to think that I didn’t have to work for other people all my life.”

Kuzyk, too, discovered that his scientific background was invaluable in his new life as a brewer.

“I think if you’d talked to me four years ago, I would have felt like maybe I was leaving behind or turning my back on my training,” he says. “I’m really happy about how much it’s used every day. From the sanitary method perspective, as a microbiologist, sterile technique is just drilled in you. Just understanding what is going on at the microscopic level, none of what goes on feels like black art.”

Kuzyk has fully embraced his role as “mad scientist,” and his scientific background has formed the inspiration for Category 12’s entire marketing and branding strategy.

“We kind of call it a mix of Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” he says. “We’re having a lot of fun with it!”