John Borror might have one of the coolest nerd jobs around. And that’s saying a lot.
Nerds with training get to do the coolest stuff. But they don’t always get to do it with beer. Borror gets to check off both of these boxes as the lead scientist for Hoax Lab at Actual Brewing.
I arrive at the back door of their warehouse, filled with huge tanks and vats, tubes running along the ceiling. A true commercial production center. After meeting the grainery cat and getting a colorful and varied flight of beers, we meander into the tasting room, past arcade game cabinets and an office. The hallway opens up into a large room filled with small tanks and all the coolest bells and whistles you never got to use in your freshman biology class.
As he leads me on a tour through his mad scientist lair behind the brewery, we walk among beakers and microscopes and machines that look like they could inject life into Frankenstein’s monster. Glass coils and dials hang on machines like medals on a serviceman’s jacket. Large latex gloves hang into a clear, sealed bin, attached to one wall by their hems. A sealed environment one can reach inside, which is what this lab is all about. Getting your hands dirty, figuratively and literally, while maintaining a pristine culture.
Borror explains the role and mechanisms of each appliance as we tour the space. He has a BioChem degree from OSU. We discuss the simple and ancient little creature at the heart of the brewing industry: yeast. He waxes poetic about genetic analytics and selective breeding. Eventually, they hope to lend their lab services to home brewers to define the parameters of their beers, from Alcohol By Volume, to International Bitter Units. The Actual Brewers are a helpful bunch, and hope eventually to assist and troubleshoot over a frothy pint and a centrifuge and use all their powers for good instead of evil. I sip Fat Julian out of a graduated cylinder as he explains how a gas chromatograph detects characteristics of beer, and a giant vintage claw machine shakes test tubes. This is why we science.
The minutiae of Borror’s work is the result of a plethora of other fields converging and trading their technologies. But these windows into the lifecycles of microscopic organisms are the modern manual labor and disease they dealt with day to day didn’t seem so bad. So really, it’s just the details that have changed.
Actual Brewing started as a passion project in the garage of Fred Lee. He is the man behind the curtain, the owner-operator. He is a brewer straight out of central casting. A burly man with a burlier beard and untied work boots. The business he runs uses the ancient techniques of fermentation. He lets his nose guide him, along with his taste buds. In the grainery works a cat who earns her kibble as a mouser—a partnership that led to the domestication of felines. And in the laboratory works a scientist. A decidedly more modern co-worker for a brewer. Actual Brewing and Hoax Labs straddle these worlds of ancient and modern seamlessly. The cat, the beards, and the beer build the bridge from the past, and the gas chromatograph and electrophoresis machine usher the practice assuredly into the future.
Into the laboratory strolls Lee. He greets us and places his hands on a structure sitting placidly among the glass and metal of the laboratory. It is a giant crate-like structure that appears to be fashioned of cement. When I ask what we are standing over, Fred beams. It’s a Yorkshire Square. An open-topped stone tank. The original brewing method, used from 500-1100 AD. This ancient technology is how the first beers were made. Wild yeast would billow in, and the process of fermentation would happen naturally. Just like making friends over beers.
Across the road in an adjacent industrial park sits another business, Lang Stone. At 160 years and running, Lang is the oldest stone business in America, possibly the oldest business in Ohio. Over some Actual brews, Lee had discussed stone tanks with Larry First, the owner of Lang. First happened to have a line on some huge sandstone slabs, mined from the Dayton area.
As one beer led to another, ideas followed. Soon, the stone slabs had made their way into Lee’s possession, among the burners and beakers, where he plans on putting them to work.
“We’re gonna make some beers in this and see why they stopped using these stone tanks. Apparently these are bad, and we’re gonna find out why.”
“And if it turns out well?”
“Then we’re gonna drink the shit out of it.”
Spoken like a true timeless craftsman.