Chip McElroy, BA, Biochemistry, ’79, PhD, Chemistry, ’89
Owner, Live Oak Brewing Company. Interviewed by Esther Robards-Forbes.
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.
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.