Twenty students are completely silent, brows beneath sunglasses furrowed in deep concentration as they scribble notes on a scorecard. They sniff, swirl, sniff, gulp and ponder. They’re tasting beer.
Earlier in the evening, Brad Titus, an officer of the Food Science Brewing Club (FSBC), proposed a question: Without sight, can we discern different beer styles, and do we actually like what we claim we do? He explained anticipatory bias, citing a 2006 MIT study.
Club members then engaged in an hour-long blind tasting session, cleansing their palates with water and saltines between brews. They attempted to guess eight beers, ranging from Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye to Mammoth Brewing’s Double Nut Brown.
“The first time is really hard,” Titus said, referencing his first blind tasting where he only guessed one beer correctly. “I remember thinking a double IPA [India Pale Ale] was a pilsner.”
Still in its first year, the FSBC is made up of about 30 students dedicated to promoting beer in all its scientific glory. They meet for analytical tastings, go on brewery tours and build connections in the industry. Although an official club under the UC Davis Food Science Department, students of legal age — IDs are checked at the door — are welcome to join regardless of academic field.
The club is just one aspect of the growing beer culture in Davis. Some still view beer chiefly as a vehicle for partying, but with a recent surge in craft beer both locally and nationally, it’s evident that the public perception of beer is changing.
“It’s speaking to beer for what it is — a pleasurable, interesting beverage, rich in flavor and history,” said Charles Bamforth, Anheuser-Busch-endowed professor of brewing science and faculty advisor for the FSBC.
Science and artistry
At the FSBC meeting, students were tasting for texture, carbonation, mouthfeel and flavor profile. The aroma could give off notes of banana, spice, butter or apples. The malt might taste like biscuits, burnt toast or hay. The hops can be described as grassy, floral, citrusy or botanical.
“Lots of components go into making beer — more than people think,” said Katy Benson, president of the FBSC and a food science graduate student.
At its simplest, beer is made of water, yeast, malt and hops. But anything can be added, and changing one microbiological aspect during the brewing process can alter the entire taste.
Despite the intellectual imagery associated with wine, beer is the more sophisticated and scientifically demanding beverage, according to Bamforth.
Many would argue that beer has more creative leeway, too. Brewers are doing ballsy things that would be frowned upon in the wine world — Wynkoop Brewing Company recently released Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, brewed with roasted bull testicles, for example. Experimental brews — beers with basil, honey, grapes, habanero peppers, saffron, etc. — are part of what is propelling some younger drinkers toward beer instead of wine.
“Our generation is drawn to trying new things,” Benson said. “We’ll seek out the crazy, awesome beers.”
This can be seen at the Davis Food Co-op’s wine and beer tastings, organized the first three Fridays of every month ($1 per taste, $5 for all eight samples). Jules Loke, of marketing and education for the Davis Food Co-op, said that while the wine tasters are usually older Davis residents, beer tasters are an eclectic mix. And when the beer theme is more unique or trendy — sours, barrel-aged or ciders — about 80 percent of the tasters are college students.
More and more craft beer
Taylor Ramos opened the Beer Shoppe two years ago, upping the ante for other downtown bars with more than 600 bottled beers for sale, rotating taps and daily tasting specials. Many beer nerds partially attribute the rise of beer culture in Davis to the Beer Shoppe’s presence.
“It was an unusual concept when we opened — to have a place that just sells beer and nothing else. It was a learning curve for the community,” Ramos said. “The craft beer world is going through an explosive level of growth right now. Younger people are starting to care about what they’re drinking.”
Ramos says it’s all part of a general cultural revolution. In just the past five years, consumers started getting educated about beer, which meant moving away from corporate beers and toward microbreweries. About 90 percent of American beer is made from two companies — Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, who make everything from Keystone to Blue Moon to Corona — with 6.5 percent of domestic sales from small breweries. That number has been rising, though. According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry experienced a 15 percent growth in 2012, with its retail dollar up to $10.2 billion from $8.7 billion in 2011.
With all that said, Bamforth emphasizes that corporate beer isn’t bad beer — any beer you like constitutes a good beer. David Phinney, who founded the FSBC back in fall and now studies in Ohio, hates when people call Bud and Coors bad beers.
“They’re some of the highest quality beers in the world,” he said, referring to the consistency in the brewing process. “Drink a Bud here and drink one in Europe and they taste exactly the same.”
Ramos says that most of his customers are older drinkers and graduate students — folks who don’t mind paying a little more to try unique beers — but there are curious undergrads who frequent the place, too.
“Once you turn 21, a whole world opens up, and it’s exciting,” said David Zuskov, a fourth-year food science major.
Homebrewing takes off
Zuskov and Jon Graham, a fourth-year computer science major, started homebrewing together this year after Graham received a homebrewing kit from his dad for Christmas.
“I was really intimidated at first … but basic brewing is really easy. It’s basically steeping grains in a pot and letting them ferment,” Graham said.
A basic homebrewing setup will cost roughly $80, but after that, homebrewing can be highly economical. Ingredients may cost $30 for a batch that’ll yield two cases (48 bottles). And with tons of tutorials and videos online, anyone can learn.
Serious homebrewers like John Sanatar, president of the Greenbelt Brewers Association and a technical specialist for the university, may spend a lot more on equipment to increase production and quality. Sanatar tries to brew twice a month, and he’s able to make 20-gallon batches in his garage equipped with multiple freezers, kegs, a grain mill and more.
The Greenbelt Brewers Association, a club recognized by the American Homebrewers Association, serves Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties, and its members meet monthly at Sudwerk to discuss brewing techniques. The club has grown exponentially in just the past five years, from three to 105 paid members.
Why? Sanatar says homebrewing is just cool, with the internet allowing such hobbies to be fully fleshed out on a wide scale. Loke says it matches the local community ethos.
“It stems from the DIY culture of Davis — everyone’s growing gardens, everyone’s brewing beer. It’s what people do for fun,” Loke said.
Sanatar notes that Davis water should not be used for brewing, as the metals will make for a variable end product. Apart from water chemistry, a common pitfall for new homebrewers is sanitation — unwanted bacteria can result in a funky, infected beer. Fermentation temperature is also an important factor to focus on.
“You can make beer just as good as the pros,” Sanatar said. “Why not do it at home?”
JANELLE BITKER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.