The Not So Secret Center of the Craft Beer Universe

February 01, 2018

By Michael Clearwater, February 01, 2018

Let’s make this an interactive and educational experience.

Go get a beer, any beer. Drink that beer. Study the beer while you drink it. Notice, perhaps, the foam and the lacing it leaves on the glass. Or, instead, think about the aroma and the flavors. If it’s a beer you’ve had before, maybe make a note of the consistency and the stability of the flavor of that beer from one pint to the next.

Now, google “UC Davis” and the name of the brewery. You got some hits, right? UC Davis probably had something to do with that beer. UC Davis likely will have something to do with the next beer you’ll drink, too, whatever that might be.

Standing in the taproom of the newly opened Dunloe Brewing tucked away in an industrial segment of Davis, California, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the mythos of the craft brew movement and forget all about the giant university that dominates this small Northern California town.

Owner, brewer, and the lone employee of Dunloe Brewing, Brennan Fleming, sits across from me in front of a wall of barrels and tells me about the challenges of opening his own brewery. Meanwhile, his mom applies labels to crowlers at a table adjacent to us. Fleming is a quiet guy, so it’s hard to hear him when his two ebullient dogs start barking at me to kick a ball for them, but the taproom itself seems to speak for him.

The barrels at Fleming’s back gesture toward his ambition and the optimism that he’s going to be here for a while. The slate of beers scrawled over the bar announce that Fleming, a former home brewer, is making his beer on his terms. His mom, at work applying the labels, is a silent reminder that, ambition and optimism aside, this is a humble, bare bones operation.

Thanks to UC Davis Extension and Sudwerk for the header image, which pictures Charlie Bamforth and UC Davis Extension Master Brewers students at the Sudwerk Brewery.

In many ways, this public university is inextricably linked the the business of American brewing.”

Except the story Fleming tells me about opening his own brewery contains some details you don’t usually find in the beer fairy tales about rugged brewers forging their own way in the world.

“It was easier to get a loan and insurance,” he tells me, “once people found out I went to [UC] Davis.”

UC Davis, which is widely acknowledged within the industry as an integral part of the American brewing landscape, houses both a Food Science Program where students can specialize in brewing, and the intensive Master Brewers Program run through the university extension. Fleming has attained both the Master Brewer certification and, to his parents’ delight, a bachelor’s degree in food science.

Like many others, Fleming has used these credentials as a way to advance his brewing career. While Fleming’s nonchalant comment about insurance breaks the trance I’ve been put in by Dunloe’s beautiful taproom (and its amazing smell), it also highlights the important role UC Davis plays as a key institution in the American brewing industry.

Brewing has been taught at UC Davis since 1959 when Lucky Lager donated a small brewery to the university. In 1999, the Anheuser-Busch company endowed a professorship, which has been held by Charlie Bamforth, “The Pope of Foam,” since then. Bamforth tells me he will retire from teaching next year, after “forty years in the brewing industry.”

That Bamforth counts his time as a professor as time spent “in the brewing industry” is curious. In many ways, this public university is inextricably linked the the business of American brewing. Under Bamforth’s guidance, Davis has grown its program, and it has recently received large financial gifts from The Gambrinus Company and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. The latter of these gifts has been used to create a permanent position on campus for the “Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Endowed Brewer.”

UC DavisLearning the ropes in the lab.

These industry gifts to the university, however, are obviously more investment than gift. Breweries, both large and small, benefit from the kind of brewers and lab technicians the university produces.

When I ask Charlie Bamforth about the impact the craft beer movement has had on the program, his answer illuminates why both large and small breweries are so interested in both the science and the people that come out of UC Davis. Rather than talk imprecise definitions of craft beer, Bamforth steers me to a different term, away from the product and towards the producer.

“A craftsperson,” he writes to me, “is trained, skilled and passionate about delivering a product or a service.” The “craft” designation for Bamforth, is “a matter of values and principles.” And the values and principles instilled in brewers who come through UC Davis are in demand in both the largest and smallest of breweries.

To get a sense of what, specifically, these values and principles entail, I wind up in Davis’s Beer Shoppe talking (and drinking beer) with the very first “Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Endowed Brewer” himself, Joe Williams, and fourth-year undergrad, Bella Perez, fresh off a summer internship with Almanac. I ask Joe what it’s like to teach brewing, and his answer, which seems to come from the Samuel Beckett teaching manual, surprises me.

“I spend my days finding ways to fail,” he says, with a wry smile. Then he clarifies: “You can’t teach beer. You can’t teach brewing. Brewing is just applying a problem solving skill set to a set of problems. If you don’t have a problem solving skill set, you can’t brew beer. Teaching brewing is teaching problem solving. Shit happens. Shit breaks. Things go wrong all the time, and so what I’m trying to do is think what are the problems industry is facing and how I can artificially create those in our brewery so that these students can suffer through all the shit. But by the time they leave,” Williams trails off.

Perez jumps in to finish his sentence, proclaiming “they can trouble shoot like no other!”

Charlie has planted all these seeds. Davis has planted all these seeds.”

All of the students I end up talking to at Davis express a slight regret about not learning extensive recipe formulation tricks. They seem a bit bogged down by the heavy theoretical approach UC Davis seems to favor for brewing education. Williams tells me that Oregon State, the other major American university for brewing, offers students a more hands-on approach, but that down the road a brewer will appreciate having theoretical foundation that will allow her to think her way out of whatever trouble she finds on the brew deck.

Williams ends our meeting by waxing a bit poetic about UC Davis and its wide-reaching impact on American beer.

“It’s ridiculous,” he tells me. “How many people have been through UC Davis Brewing? You can walk into any brewery and chance are, if there are more than five employees one of them came to Davis in some capacity. And then you start to think, even if one of the five came to Davis, chances are that one of the five has the most understanding and knowledge and that disseminates to other four.

"Charlie has planted all these seeds. Davis has planted all these seeds. That is what Beer is in the US. It is the Sierra Nevadas, but that’s Davis. Yes, it’s Ken Grossman, but read his book and read about how he learned how to fix the beer he was brewing. Without that knowledge, Sierra wouldn’t be what it is. Without Sierra, you wouldn’t have craft. It’s dumb. It makes my hair stand up. It’s dumb.”

It’s also, however, damn smart, like craft beer has a college education.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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