Learn About Beer Science with Jim Brown

The head of UC Davis’ brewing program will give a talk at a City College fundraiser as part of Beer Week.

While much of Beer Week consists of various tap takeovers and release parties, there are also more unique events like the lecture and trivia night Laughing Monk Brewing is hosting. 

Jim Brown, the director of fermentation science at UC Davis, will lead a chat about beer and the science behind it. Brown was 30-years old and working as an operations manager for an alarm company when he got fed up and decided to go back to school to learn about brewing. He’s spent more than 20 years pursuing that passion and learning more about yeast than you thought possible. SF Weekly spoke to Brown ahead of his talk.  

SF WEEKLY: How did you get into brewing? 

BROWN: When I turned 30, that was my midlife crisis. I quit my job and went to study winemaking and brewing. I got hooked on yeast research. I went into a Ph.D. program studying yeast. At the time, cutting-edge things were happening. The human genome was being sequenced and [researchers were] using yeast to help figure it out.  

SFW: Why were you hooked on yeast research? 

BROWN: [In brewing], the yeast is doing something you can’t do in a chemistry set. It’s so fascinating. So many things that can go wrong. There’s an ecology of bacteria and yeast working together. Every culture has its own beer and wine and that’s because of yeast doing different things in those environments. There’s a lot of spoiled beer out there, spoiled wine, and there doesn’t have to be. You have to know what you’re doing. 

SFW: Who approached you about doing this fundraiser? 

BROWN: CCSF was already doing a fundraiser, and I do a lot of beer science. Application of science is a great thing. They thought it would be good for me to give a talk to science nerds and explain things they didn’t know. It just so happens it [coincided with] Beer Week. It’s getting a lot of interest. It’s going to be a really entertaining talk for both science and beer geeks that really want to know a bit more. There’ll be things you didn’t know. 

SFW: What will your talk be about? BROWN: I was specifically asked to give a talk that has the science behind the flavor. There’s a lot of bad information out there. There’s a wealth of information [on the internet]. You see people online arguing back and forth and they have no idea why they’re supposed to be doing things… they don’t know the science behind it. My passion, why I got into it is… that you can figure it out. For instance, [at UC Davis] we have an entire online course on foam. It’s critically important. It’s the first thing you see in a glass. If you have no foam at all, it’s less attractive. Even the lacing affects what you perceive as the quality of the beer. It can foam over or it can be nice and collapse into nothing. To have a consistent quality beer, foam is one of the first things you need to solve. 

SFW: I heard that if there’s a bunch of foam lacing on a pint glass when you finish, it means the glass was clean. True? 

BROWN: If the soap and/or detergent are not properly rinsed off, you’ll get foam collapse, and when you drink the beer, you’re not leaving those proteins behind on the glass. 

SFW: What’s the biggest change in brewing since you got really into it? 

BROWN: Acceptance of historic styles. Like wine has terroir, beer has a sense of place. I’m kind of disappointed we get in these fads like hazy IPAs are the only things people want to make. There’s also more interest in making a balanced beer. Balance quality is important. We don’t have people making these big hop bombs anymore. Having an unbalanced beer on the market doesn’t last. Beer has to be interesting. Margins in breweries are very, very small. They need to be consistent. You need to respect your customer and give them something they relate to and rely on. 

SFW: Do you have a favorite beer? 

BROWN: Wherever I travel, I’m drinking the local beer. I’m not going to go all the way to Venice and drink a Sierra Nevada. I like to taste what’s local. One of the exciting things that are coming out now are real ales. They’re carbonated in the barrels. It’s an old style. England had a big sweep of it back in the ’90s and now we’re starting to catch on, too. They have a style that’s different than canned beer. 

SFW: What prompts something like that? 

BROWN: There’s the emotional aspect of that, the style, so it’s less of a chemistry set making beer. It’s more of the artisanal. It’s the extreme of being artisanal. The bacteria and yeast are evolving as you’re making it. They’re less stable so you have to be quicker. Breweries are closer to their customers now. There’s an emotional attachment. Commitment to local breweries is getting higher and higher. 

SFW: Anything else you want to say? 

BROWN: If there’s one thing I’d recommend everybody do, it’s drink beer out of a good glass. If not, you’re missing all the quality. 

UC Davis Brewing School Talk & Beer Science Trivia, Feb. 9, 12 p.m. until close, Laughing Monk Brewing, 1439 Egbert Ave., Unit A

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