11/14/2014 03:27 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

How I Used My Neuroscience Lab Skills to Start Brewing My Own Beer

Courtney Espiritu

As an undergraduate at Fresno State, when I told my advisor I planned to go to grad school, his first question was, "Do you have any hobbies?"

"I like to read," I said.

"You'll get sick of reading in grad school," he said. "Anything else?"

"I like to cook."

"Get used to eating cheap fast food."

I struggled to think of something else, before saying, "I guess I like craft beer."

"That's probably the most popular grad student hobby," he laughed.

Twenty applications, four interviews, and one moving truck later, I found myself studying how the brain forms memories in a neuroscience lab at the University of California, Riverside. Knee-deep in protocols, data analysis, and, as my old advisor had predicted, late nights with cheap foiled-wrapped burritos, I had completely forgotten about his question. Besides, who has the time for hobbies in grad school?

When I had some free time, I would tour local craft breweries. That interest in beer ultimately brought me into contact with faculty, grad students and friends who brew their own beer. They taught me the craft that grew into my favorite hobby.

A few months ago, that hobby turned into a business, thanks to a local brewery incubator called Brew Crew Inc., which houses Seven Brethren Brewery, where I am head brewer. This transition from amateur home brewer to 'professional' brewer was easy in part because brewing beer and getting a Ph.D. have a lot in common.

First, time management skills are critical. A brew day takes four to eight hours, depending on what and how you brew. This means starting early in the morning, preparing the equipment and ingredients, following a strict protocol for when to add hops and yeast, and cleaning up in the afternoon.

My days in the lab follow a similar, albeit longer, schedule: early morning preparation of memory-assessing mazes and microscopes, followed by mixing solutions, data collection and, finally, cleaning all the tools.

Second, one must embrace delayed gratification. It typically takes a month for my beer to be ready to drink, the same amount of time it takes to finish most of my experiments in the lab. Finishing a Ph.D. is at least a five-year commitment, which gives me an idea for a new beer concept: India Ph.D. Ale: must wait 5 years to consume!

Third, science is the backbone of brewing and my lab work. Every batch of beer is like an experiment, whether I'm making something new, or trying to replicate a previously made beer. On brew days, I follow a specific protocol, collecting data on beer density, volumes, and temperatures to make sure it turns out right. I try to control all variables, accounting for the color contribution of dark-roasted barley, the protein content of wheat, the hydrolysis of starch to form maltose (the fermentable sugar in malted barley), the isomerization of hop alpha acids (the primary bittering compound in beer) and yeast cell count.

Meticulous records make it easier to isolate issues that may arise. Troubleshooting is often required when the numbers don't add up. The outcome of this experiment is an enjoyable craft beer. Much like a research paper, my peers and the general public review the end result. After receiving feedback, I make changes and brew on.

My lab training prepared and likely skewed my approach to brewing, but I am also a better scientist because of my brewing. Not only have I broadened my knowledge on biochemical processes, but I also have developed better lab day routines. With multiple projects on the line, I manage my time more effectively to get everything done. I'm also encouraged by the awards I have received for some of my home-brewed beers, making the inevitable setbacks in the lab easier to handle.

I cannot stress the importance of my undergraduate advisor's question when pursuing a Ph.D.: a hobby is critical to a successful and enjoyable career in graduate school. I never would've guessed that my graduate school hobby would eventually become a commercial product. Now, if only finding a postdoc were as fun as brewing beer.

Philip Vieira is a soon to be graduating Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside. He is also the head brewer for Seven Brethren Brewery in Riverside, CA.