Joe Williams, endowed brewer


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Joe Williams customized hot rods for 15 years. Then the recession hit, everyone’s “disposable income dried up,” and his business shuttered. A college-dropout, he found his calling while listening to a podcast featuring Charlie Bamforth, UC Davis’ world-renowned “Pope of Foam,” who was discussing his research on brewing beer. Inspired, Williams cleaned up his transcripts at community college, enrolled at Davis to study brewing and obtained a master’s degree. Now, thanks to a $2 million grant by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., he’s an endowed brewer, tasked with analyzing the suds that get you drunk.

When did you start brewing beer?

2008-ish. I got into brewing beer at home and really enjoyed it. It’s one of those things that encompasses all of my interests in science, fabrication, history. Any time I want to look at something new, it comes back to beer.

How long have you been growing your beard?

Oh God, I don’t know. My daughter is 10 and she’s never seen me without a beard.

So you had it before you became a brewer, but are beards a thing with brewers?

It turns out it is. I didn’t quite realize when this all happened. But everyone was like, “Oh, he looks like a brewer.” You go to a brewing convention and most people are wearing flannel and beards. We didn’t coordinate. We promise we didn’t.

The flannel does bring a kind of versatile warmth …

Right. You get a little water on it, you don’t feel it right away. It’s kind of absorbent. There’s some logic to it.

Is your campus brewery different from a commercial brewery?

I can do everything that a commercial brewery can do. Well, most things, but we do it on a much smaller scale. Our brewhouse does about 46-47 gallons’ worth of beer. It’s probably one of the most advanced small-scale breweries in the world. I look at the analytics a little more, the numbers behind what’s going on. We pride ourselves on being able to produce consistent beers. If we’re looking at a variable (in quality), we can tell whether it’s from the process or the material or whatever.

Is brewing more complicated than people think?

Oh, absolutely. We’re right next to our research winery on campus. And not knocking wine—I drink a fair amount of wine—but when you look at wine, it’s two raw materials: grapes and yeast. In beer, we can talk grain, malted barley is what we use, then we add in hops, and that’s another agricultural product that varies seasonally. People tend to think of it as the lazy man’s beverage, and it’s much more than that.

How much is there to learn?

It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. I know people who have gotten their Ph.D.s studying one little aspect of dry hopping. It’s fascinating. It’s incredible. Beer’s wonderful.

How does the academic climate of Davis contribute to your studying?

We’re in the food science department. I get chills driving down 80, going, “I get to go to work there today.” It’s incredible. I don’t pretend to be an expert on all things. I have a number of weaknesses, and the great thing about the university system is areas that I’m weak in, the person next door to me in the lab is probably an expert.

Do anything with local ingredients?

I wish we did. But there’s only so many hours in the day. And it really is just Charlie and I doing the brunt of the work. I’d love to have a hop field. We’ve got that great vineyard right next to us. I’d love to have a hop plot somewhere, someday.

How’s the momentum in NorCal surrounding the beer scene?

Northern California, with Sierra Nevada, has always been a hub of the craft beer resurgence. It’s really easy to pull on 15, 20 different people and get a really good feel for what the industry’s doing. It’s very brotherly and sisterly. I don’t know what it is that attracts the mellow people (to brewing), but they seem to be low ego.

What type of beers are you working on?

We have undergraduates coming to the end of their winter quarter. It’s quite a bit of fun. We’ve got someone making an altbier, someone making an IPA, a hefeweizen, a Saison, all over the spectrum. They’re just finishing up their last brews and getting them ready for our in-house competition. We get industry brewers to come in and act as judges and they critique the beers. The winning beer gets brewed at Sudwerk [Brewing Co.] locally, scaled up on their small 15-barrel system, and gets released to market.

What is your favorite style of beer?

I tend to like a hoppy pilsner or a hoppy pale ale. I like them on the lighter color end. Beer is my job. But I still want to have a beer at the end of the day. And I don’t want to think about what the brewer was thinking when they made it. I don’t want to overanalyze it. I just want a beer.