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Chemistry Alum and Owner of Live Oak Brewing Talks Hops

Chemistry Alum and Owner of Live Oak Brewing Talks Hops

Chip McElroy came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and left in 1988 with a PhD in biochemistry. After a career in biotech and drug design, he left behind molecular biology and co-founded Live Oak Brewing Company 22 years ago. That was back before anyone knew what craft brewing was in Austin. McElroy is putting that chemistry knowledge to good use now at Austin's oldest brewery.

We sat down with McElroy to talk science, beer-brewing and more for our upcoming edition of the Texas Scientist magazine.

How did you first get interested in beer and brewing?

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I took a year off and went to Europe for what was supposed to be two months, but I ended up staying for 10 months. I was introduced to good beer then. Spent a lot of time in Germany. I hitchhiked and slept on friends' floors and in tents.

What made you want to move from a career in biotech to brewing?

I was doing DNA sequencing, then automated DNA sequencing came around, and the owner shut down the molecular biology service department in the small biotech company where I worked. So, I started a brewery. We started raising money and rented an old sausage plant, renovating it ourselves. We sold our first beer in April 1997. People liked it. We were making beers you could drink in the hot weather of Texas.

Before that, I also was running the first beer festivals in Texas, the Texas Brewers Festivals, with a couple other guys who were also UT grads.

Photo courtesy of Tyler Malone / The Second Shooter

How did studying biochemistry and chemistry help you in the brewing business?

I speak chemistry. I understand chemistry, enzymology and fermentation—and that is what brewing is. Brewing is not a loose recipe, you know: a little of this, a little of that; never mind the details, it'll come out good. Instead, it is meticulously controlled art and science. I understand the details and a lot of what is happening on a molecular level.

We make a couple of German sour beers, for example. They're soured with the bacterium Lactobacillius, which, coincidentally, takes me back to my graduate school days. In Jon Robertus' lab—he was an X-ray crystallographer—we did molecular biology in support of the crystallographic efforts. My research made mutants of histidine decarboxylase from Lactobacillus. Well, Lactobacillius eats glucose and makes lactic acid, and that gives the beer a lemony sour taste.

I never knew there was so much science going on in beer.

There's piles of it. Brewers were the first practical microbiologists. Domesticated brewers' yeast have been selected over hundreds of years for desirable characteristics [related to their chemistry]. The yeast in our Hefeweizen is a unique type that puts out fruity esters …like the banana ester, isoamyl acetate. This is the molecule that gives bananas their flavor. It also makes a class of chemicals called phenolics. The most predominant one is this clove-flavor molecule, but they also make molecules similar to vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Most people have heard of skunky beer. It's a result of a UV-catalyzed reaction between hop constituents and a sulfur-containing molecule in the beer. It creates one of two similar molecules made by skunks. Take a beer, put it in a glass and stick it in direct sunlight for about five minutes, and you'll smell it. That's why most beer doesn't come in clear bottles.

Your brewery favors Central European styles of beer. What's attractive about those styles?

There is such a broad range of different beers, but they all taste really good. I like doing some of these old styles that were almost lost. Other styles have been made for hundreds of years and they still make them in the same region. They're all delicious. These brewers never foisted on anyone anything that didn't taste really great. We're also about people getting together and having community. That's what these beers were designed to do. Most of our beers don't have a big alcohol content. You can have a few, hang out with friends and family and maintain your sobriety. It fits with a responsible kind of family culture.

Thanks to technology, has brewing become more science than art?

The science has always been there. The first brewers were the first microbiologists, even before they knew exactly what that was. They would take the yeast out of one batch and put it in the next batch. They knew they needed it, but they didn't know why. Early on, they were the ones who understood the chemical process. They were also inventors of some instruments and early adopters of others. Brewers invented the hydrometer, and they were early adopters of the thermometer.

Pasteur wasn't trying to fix milk; he was trying to extend the shelf life of beer when he discovered pasteurization. There are scientific papers from the 1800s on beer. There were scientific conferences in the 1600s on beer. Beer has been right there at the forefront of science.

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Tuesday, 07 February 2023

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