In 1999, I moved to Chico, California. While I was attending college there, I discovered something that would change my expectations of beer, the Sierra Nevada Brewery. Not only could you get every style that they made in that town, but also it was ridiculously fresh and only $4 a pitcher, what a bargain! It was then that I decided that quality beer was something that I wanted to explore.
After graduation, I moved to San Diego and shortly after purchased my first homebrew kit. It was the basic no frills liquid extract with a plastic fermentation bucket and a 3-gallon (11-L) stockpot setup. As a homage to my favorite “little” brewery back in Chico, I used whole cone hops in my first batch, which at the time I thought was impressive for a first go at it.
With basic instructions in hand from the guy at the brew shop, I learned my first lesson quickly. I soon figured out that scorched wort made for a not so tasty brew. Over the next few years, I was an on-again/off-again homebrewer, mostly reserving my creations for special occasions like the annual cabin trip with my friends up to the mountains every 4th of July. At the time I was working in the finance industry and was enjoying what seemed like a very stable and lucrative corporate existence.
In 2008 when the financial markets took a nosedive, my company had to close its doors and I was out of a job. While searching for a new career path I stumbled across an advertisement in a magazine for the UC-Davis Master Brewers Program. This was one of those moments where if I were in a cartoon, the light bulb would have turned on over my head. I had no idea programs like this even existed.
The next day I picked up the phone and called up the program representative to ask what this was all about and see what I needed to do, if this was to be something I decided to pursue. After our conversation I felt enlightened and a bit apprehensive at the same time. I found out that I would have to take courses in both biology and chemistry as prerequisites before I could even apply. Suffice it to say that I hadn’t even touched those subject areas in 16 years!
Despite my reservations, I enrolled in the necessary classes at the local community college and went for it. At the same time, I also made the decision that I would need to understand brewing a whole heck of a lot better than I did at that point. I bought every brewing and beer related book I could get my hands on. I also decided that an equipment upgrade was absolutely necessary if I were to maximize my potential as a homebrewer.
I purchased a few glass carboys, two keg shells that I would use as a mash tun and a kettle, a kegerator complete with external thermostat, an immersion chiller and everything else needed to make the move to all-grain brewing. My first batch was a Scotch Ale that I thought was pretty good, so I entered it into a local contest that was being judged by the guys from The Bruery (in Placentia, California). Well, I didn’t win, but I did get 3rd place overall out of 106 entries. The winner was a beer called Liquid Sex. How can you compete with a name like that?
I continued to brew throughout the year, entered some more local contests, all while trucking through my classes. When I finished, I got on the waiting list at UC-Davis for 2010 with the likelihood that I would have to wait until the following year to attend. Less than two weeks before the program was set to begin, I got the call that some people had backed out and that I was in. I packed my bags and headed up to Northern California.
Now, on the eve of this chapter in my brewing journey, I find myself with many questions. Who are the people that will be alongside me? Will this be the foot in the door that I am looking for? The answers to everything will come soon enough in the weeks to come.
Editor’s Note: Since writing this story in 2010, Justin has gone on to graduate from the UC-Davis master brewers program and held positions as the Head Brewer at Prospectors Brewing in Mariposa, CA and Mockery Brewing in Denver, CO. He is currently the Head Brewer at Resolute Brewing Co. in Centennial, CO.