I turn on my recorder and loft up what I think is a softball question: “What led you to go the brewmaster route?” Caleb Levar and his business partner Levi Loesch exchange a look. In pure Minnesota Nice fashion, they both immediately look away and smile but clearly something is amiss. I’ve said something wrong but I don’t know what it is.
“Levi knows this is a trigger for me,” Caleb explains, not unkindly. “There are only a few master brewers in the world. I will never be one, that requires a level of skill and training that I will never have.”
This betrays Caleb’s personality: he is particular, he does not suffer fools, and yet, with an open smile he seeks to put people at ease. I’ll soon learn that Caleb’s primary motivation is to educate the public on all things science and he firmly believes pretension is the number one reason most people tune the science out.
We spend most of our time together walking the length of Fair State’s cavernous new production facility and the parking lot outside. Caleb has his towheaded 18-month-old in tow, and the kid has a penchant for movement. While Flynn points and grunts to indicate where he wants us to walk—toward the trains is his preferred locale—Caleb juggles our conversation, parenting, and a general tour of the facility.
Caleb characterizes his path to brewing beer as a winding one, but to the outside observer it appears to be a natural progression for someone of his ilk. That is, someone who is equally passionate about science and providing a bridge for the rest of the world for whom science is, shall we say, less exciting.
His interest in microbiology was sparked in high school when his biology teacher found funding for a microbiology class. Later, as a student at the University of Minnesota, he was a dishwasher in a microbiology lab and had the chance to take a few microbiology courses while studying abroad. The former biochemistry major found his niche. “I wasn’t good at biochemistry. I didn’t have the head for it,” Caleb says modestly.
He spent nine years as an undergrad and a Ph.D. student working in that same lab where he started as a dishwasher, something he knew would be frowned upon if he wanted to pursue a career in academia, where diversity of experience is critical. This knowledge didn’t deter him; he continued to follow a path of his own making through his doctoral studies. Ultimately, he decided that life in academia wasn’t in the cards.
“I realized that most of my job was going to be writing and reading papers and doing really fascinating but esoteric experiments that not many people care about. That wasn’t what excited me about microbiology in the first place.”
Luckily for Caleb, his advisors and mentors were supportive of his exploration into the world of brewing. He and Levi embarked upon a joint venture, Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery, a mixed fermentation brewery-in-planning located in northern Minnesota. Through friends of friends, the partners began consulting with Fair State Brewing Cooperative, which led Caleb to a full-time position.
Early on, one of Caleb’s mentors said that being a microbiologist isn’t a nine-to-five job, it’s a way of life. This sentiment, often used to describe art or the clergy or work as a public servant, careers that are stereotypically all-encompassing, sounds funny when applied to a field of science. Yet, the way Caleb explains it, it makes sense.
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Microbiology is all around us. It’s difficult to escape once you know about what Caleb affectionately calls the “unseen masters,” or microbes. So, true to form, he began to live, eat, and breathe microbiology. He started a sourdough culture. He made sauerkraut and yogurt. And he started brewing beer.
“I brewed my first batch for my 21st birthday. It was really bad […] but it was fizzy, and it had alcohol in it, and that got the ball rolling.”
Brewing beer is a practical vehicle for Caleb to apply his knowledge, but more importantly, it facilitates a conversation about this thing he loves wholeheartedly—science. If the goal of brewers is to make a quality beer that is consistently reliable, time and time again, a microbiologist’s role in the brewing process is to ask questions and look for answers. What organism led to this characteristic? How do we replicate that?
“There are always going to be variables that we don’t understand fully, especially when it comes to mixed-culture fermentation. A background in science, specifically microbiology, allows you to figure out how you can change conditions in brewing so it’s more like what you did in the lab,” he explains.
If anything frustrates Caleb about the brewing industry—perhaps society in general, at that—is the willingness to put microbiology in what he calls “the black box.” In other words, brewers who know which inputs equal which outputs, but who don’t know, or care to know, about the actual process in between. That, in Caleb’s view, isn’t good enough.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Huh, I don’t know why things didn’t work out this time.’ The wonderful thing about science is that we have the tools to figure things out.”
Science is More Important than Beer
Science allows brewers to wrangle the art of brewing. In Caleb’s view, science, like art, is simply a way of observing and interpreting the world around us. This is a refreshingly unpretentious way of viewing a subject that often invokes fear or at the very least sighs of boredom from the average person. But Caleb claims that scientists should shoulder the blame for those sighs of boredom and quakes of fear.
“We present a false image of science as a bunch of stuffy academics sitting around in an ivory tower not interacting with the world. And we are seeing the consequences of that [lack of interaction] in our modern political climate.”
Moreover, it’s even more abhorrent to spread misinformation, or mischaracterize a scientific process, even for the purposes of making information more accessible. Caleb feels that everyone—scientist, brewer, marketing executive, and politician—have the responsibility to get the science right, to be accurate and work with integrity.
That’s the thing. For Caleb, the driver of his work isn’t just to make good beer (though he wants to do that, for sure); in fact, that work pales in comparison to opening people up to the importance of science in our world.
“Beer doesn’t matter. Science matters. It’s a hell of a lot more important to our existence than beer.”
In this era when scientific literacy is woefully lacking, Caleb feels that he has a responsibility to engage and bridge the science community and the general public. He gestures to his son, waddling around on the concrete, pointing at the red train across the chain link fence.
“Maybe it’s contrived to say, but whether you have kids or not, we have to do right for the future generation.”
It is abundantly clear that Caleb’s first love is science. I count the number of times he uses fun or wonderful or exciting to describe science—it quickly reaches the double digits. His exuberance is contagious and so is the gravity with which he approaches his subject. Our conversation is exactly what Caleb wants: to sit around, drink a beer, and talk with people about how those Unseen Masters impact our lives—beyond our favorite sour beer.