Who Inspired the Wizard to Brew?

My answer to this question, like the terrible thank you speeches following a Hollywood award, includes multiple influencers. I started homebrewing in high school and caught the brewing bug early. When it came time to choosing a college major I asked my father, a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) scientist at the time, for his advice on an appropriate educational path for a would-be brewer. Dad suggested majoring in food science and that turned out to be great advice.

During my time at Virginia Tech I continued homebrewing, worked in a wine, beer, and fish market where I became pretty good at filleting fish, and really liked food microbiology. But as I started my junior year at Virginia Tech I realized that a BS in food science was not enough to take me where I wanted to go, and I decided I wanted to go to graduate school somewhere.

Putting all of my eggs in one basket, I applied to the UC-Davis graduate program in food science, and specifically declared my interest to study in Dr. Michael Lewis’ lab.

Enter my mother. Mom put a New Brewer magazine in my 1989 Christmas stocking that featured brewing education. I think Michael Lewis’ warm smile and professorial cover photo triggered some innate response that was waiting to be triggered, because that’s when I decided that I needed to go to this place called Davis. I had never been to California and did not know where Davis was located, but I knew I needed to be there. Putting all of my eggs in one basket, I applied to the UC-Davis graduate program in food science, and specifically declared my interest to study in Dr. Michael Lewis’ lab. Good thing that all worked out because I had no Plan B.

Shortly before leaving Virginia for California I went to a beer tasting at the Brickskeller in Washington, D.C. featuring well-known beer journalist Michael Jackson from England. I had Jackson’s most recent hard-back book and asked for his autograph at the close of the tasting. His inscription reads “To Ashton, brew great beer. Cheers, Michael Jackson 1991.” (See photo below.) Over the years, I have read that simple phrase and have tried my best to live up to Michael Jackson’s command.

While at UC-Davis I really fell in love with everything about beer, brewing, and brewing education. Although terribly uncomfortable with public speaking, I paid my way through school by accepting teaching opportunities offered to me by my mentor. Brewing students seemed to connect with me . . . hell, I was younger than most of them and they probably figured they could get me to pick up bar tabs . . . and I developed a lifelong commitment to sharing brewing knowledge, something that previously seemed so unattainable, with others with the same thirst.

I also landed a job at a local brewery, Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hübsch, where I learned that brewing was 90% plumbing and cleaning, and that Karl Eden, Sudwerk’s affable and quirky German brewmaster, had a wonderful sense of the absurd and had no inhibitions on clothing. While cleaning and brewing at Sudwerk, I also learned about how an unlocked fermentation cellar could be irresistible to one drunk college kid who thought it would be cute to jump in an open fermenter, but that’s another story.

So, there you have it; the folks who helped pave my way towards a delightful and rewarding future in brewing were my wonderful parents, a terrific mentor and professor, a famous journalist and beer advocate, and a whole cast of characters who were part of that magical place called UC-Davis. We all have dreams about our futures, and the moral of this little story is to chase those dreams!

Issue: September 2020