The Performant: Roll Out the Barrel

Burrrrp: "Science Beer #3" was an inspired creation.
Photo by Nicole Gluckstern

At Nerd Nite, beer + nerds = fun

One of beer’s most intriguing qualities is that it’s an incredibly easy elixir to get nerdy about. In fact, it’s almost like a double gateway — attracting regular folk to the wide wonderful world of microbiology and science-minded folk to the bar scene. What’s more, beer as a social catalyst has been bringing people together for possibly over 10,000 years and is the third most popular beverage in the world after water and tea, providing plenty of opportunity for historical insight and cultural exchange.  All of which made hosting a beer-tasting event at San Francisco’s 38th edition of Nerd Nite kind of a no-brainer … except with brains.

Nerd Nite San Francisco has been running strong at the Rickshaw Stop since its local inception in 2010 (Nerd Nite as a phenomenon having been founded in Boston in 2003 by Chris Balakrishnan), regularly packing the place to the literal rafters with fans who flock to witness talks on such phenomena as “The World’s Weirdest Fungus,” the science behind circus sideshow acts, the inevitability of the zombie apocalypse, and the intricacies of video game design. But this month, beer. Ok, and video game design. But mostly beer.

After an informative lecture on the history of beer delivered by Jim Withee of GigaYeast (a company producing and packaging a variety of beer yeast strains for professional and home-brewers) came the beer-tasting portion of the evening. An ingrained beer-brewing rivalry between the Bay Area Science Festival and the Philadelphia Science Festival led to three experimental batches being brewed by local craft brewer (and scientist), Bryan Hermannsson of Pacific Brewing Laboratory, the winner voted on by the crowd to become the beer entered into the official 2013 competition. So not just tasting for the sake of tasting, but a group experiment to determine the beer with the best flavor and presentation. Yay for science!

What made the experiment even more intriguing from a beer science standpoint was the fact that all three batches were brewed with the same base recipe of two-row malt and simcoe hops, and under the same temperature conditions, what made the flavor of each different was strictly the yeast strain used in each (courtesy of GigaYeast, natch).  The first was a pale ale, so reminiscent of the Bay Area they even called it the “Norcal”. This one was my personal favorite, the way it embodied both the beer style and the region that brews some of the best of that style in the country, possibly the world. People were less enthusiastic about the Kölsch-style beer, which one member of the oddience likened to “cat pee” and one of the panel judges, Ken Wever, to “Band-Aids”. I just found the flavor and body flat, uninteresting. But the third brew, a Belgian-style with pear, was definitely more inspired. The nose was the best — fruity, rich, and herbal — plus a creamy mouthfeel and a lingering note of bramble and spice. It was a little sweeter than I usually like, but the crowd response to it was generally positive.

The taster cups were generous and the crowd response to free boozing was as enthusiastic as you might expect. But calling the winner was less easy, although the Bay Area Science Festival’s Kishore Hari attempted to do just that (in favor of the Belgian-style) amid loud protesting coming from the back of the room where votes were still rolling in. So clearly some bugs still remain in the scientific process of vote tallying, but you’ll be glad to know that as far as the science of beer-brewing goes, things appear to be better than ever.

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