The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 11, 2002
March 11, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 25


Time Out With:
Alan Meeker, Cancer Researcher, Beer Man

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Alan Meeker spends his days, and some of his nights, searching for clues for cancer's cure. Outside the laboratory, however, the first-year postdoctoral fellow says he is content with trying to brew the perfect beer.

Meeker, a researcher in the Urology Department at the School of Medicine, belongs to the growing legion of Maryland home brewers, a close-knit group of malt-minded mad scientists who have refrigerators stuffed with bags of hops instead of toads and formaldehyde-filled jars.

Alan Meeker in his Pikesville family home, where copper tubing, used to cool down fermenting beer, graces the dining room table.

Since 1997, brewing beer has been Meeker's obsessive hobby. Scattered throughout his Pikesville residence are tools of his trade: a copper coil on the dining room table, a plastic bucket labeled "Ale Pale" in the living room, ready-to-be-filled beer bottles in the kitchen.

Meeker brews in his backyard, preferably on warm days. He used to make beer inside, but the mess and fogged-up windows got to be "a bit too much" for his family of four, says Meeker, who received two graduate degrees from Hopkins. The Florida Tech. undergrad--whose research on a specific change that occurs in the chromosomes of cancer cells has just landed the upcoming cover spot in The American Journal of Pathology--earned a master's degree in math and science education from the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education, and last year received a doctorate from the School of Medicine.

Now he's earned another distinction.

In December, Meeker won top honors in Maryland's Best Homebrew Pale Ale contest. As Meeker's prize, the beer he crafted will be a year-round product of Baltimore's own Clipper City Brewery, a co-sponsor of the contest. The new spirit was unveiled at the brewery this past weekend.

The Gazette recently caught up with the researcher to discuss the beer-making process, his prize and things both "barnyardy" and "hoppier."

Q. Was the first batch of beer you made from a kit?

A. I tried brewing from a kit once when I was an undergraduate down in Florida, and it was just horrible. We didn't know what we were doing. We didn't have air conditioning, so it was hideous stuff. That was my first impression of home brew. Also, back then I didn't have much of an appreciation for good beer--I just drank whatever was at the keg party at the local frat house [laughs].

Q. After that forgettable first experience, what got you back into brewing?

A. It wasn't until I got to Hopkins and I met a guy in the Biochemistry Department. He sort of turned me on to real beer. He corrupted me! It was then that I realized there was this whole really cool universe of good-tasting beer out there that I never knew existed. That was step one. The second thing that happened was when I was in graduate school, a classmate had a poker game, and he was a home brewer. He asked, "Do you want a beer?" I said, "Sure." He then rattled off all these styles and told me to try one. He poured it for me, and I said, "Wow. This is outstanding." Then he told me he made it, and I was just shocked. The whole rest of the night I was drinking his beers and telling him, "This is incredible, tell me how to do this." He showed me the ropes and eventually we both joined a local home brew club, called the Cross Street Irregulars.

Q. How many people are in this club?

A. About 35. We meet once a month. Everybody brings a beer. There is usually a style of the month.

Q. Like a brewing homework assignment?

A. It's basically a competition setup, but it's pretty informal. There is a whole schedule for the year, and you are supposed to bring a beer in that style. Everyone passes their beers around, talks about what they did, what the recipe was like, what they tried to accomplish. Everyone gives each other feedback and rates the beers. You get points, and at the end of the year the person with the most points gets crowned home brewer-of-the-year [laughs].

Q. Do you know of other local brewing clubs?

A. There are actually a lot of clubs around, and there is a Maryland Homebrewers Guild, a conglomeration of all the clubs. They helped co-sponsor the competition that Clipper City did for this pale ale.

Q. Were pale ales your specialty?

A. Actually, no. I probably have brewed about 200 beers or so now, but that was one style I never tried. I always wanted to try it, and I thought, well, here is my excuse to really get one going. I brewed several of them to try to explore the range of the style.

Q. What is a pale ale?

A. There are two extremes. There is what is called an American pale ale, and then there is a British style. The American pale ale is usually much hoppier and uses American varieties of hops. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is the typical American pale ale--the hops they use tend to have a sort of citrusy, resiny character to them. On the other side there are these British styles, like Bass Ale and Samuel Smith's. Of course, they tend to use British malts, yeast and hops, which are more kind of earthy, buttery, barnyardy, less citric.

Q. What style was your beer?

A. Well, I made one that was all- American style, and one that was all-British style, and then I made a couple that were in-between, that kind of married the two. One in the middle won the competition.

Q. What did you give the Clipper City people, a recipe?

A. No, bottles. Everyone was required to drop off three or four bottles. And then there were two rounds of judging.

Q. How does the beer you made in your home get translated for mass production?

A. See, that's a good question because that is tough. It is hard enough just to duplicate a beer, period. On the home brew side, not only do you have to translate what I did, but it has to be scaled up for a large run. All kinds of things are going to end up changing. It will be really interesting for me to see how close the beer gets to what I made.

Q. After you won, you must have met with them.

A. I sat down with them to go over the recipe, exactly how it was made. The main things that go into a beer are types of malts, the yeast that is used, any treatment to the water, and the hops. Basically everything else is temperature control. But then, even the size and shape of the fermentation vessel could have an effect. There are going to be variables that lead to unpredictable effects. However, I did taste the beer when it was two weeks old in the fermenter, and it was good. It was surprisingly close to what I had made. These guys know what they're doing.

Q. What will the beer be called, and do you have any input?

A. As far as I know it will just be called Clipper City Pale Ale.

Q. Will your name appear anywhere on the bottle?

A. It's been discussed, but it seems to change from week to week. I know it's not going to be called Meeker's Amazing Pale Ale, or anything like that.

Q. What is the trick to making good home-brewed beer, and did your many years of scientific study pay off at all in this hobby of yours?

A. Well, I like to think so, but I know plenty of people who are total seat-of-the-pants brewers, and they make really good beer, too. I'm probably more scientific than most, mainly in the yeast area. I focus a lot on my yeast, maybe because I'm a biologist. From my experience, and from what I've heard from people, that is one of the big factors in getting good home-brewed beer--treat the yeast right. A lot of people don't use enough yeast, or the yeast is sickly.

Q. Is drinking homemade beer safe? In moderation, of course.

A. Actually, once the yeast get going, they suppress the growth of just about everything else. That is why beer was such a popular drink back in the Middle Ages. It was actually safer than drinking water. It turns out there is no human pathogenic organism that can grow in beer.

Q. As a scientist, what intrigues you most about the beer-making process?

A. All of it. It's really interesting. You are using a grain and just taking advantage of the biology and chemistry all the way through. It's very clever, and everything works and integrates so well.

Q. What is the hardest part of brewing?

A. I guess a key is to make careful measurements. That helps a lot in all the aspects. It's more fun than anything else.

Q. So, after nearly a decade of schooling, your first claim to fame is a beer that you made. Probably not quite what you had in mind?

A. [Laughs] No, but I'll take my 15 minutes of fame. And I've got a few more years left; maybe I'll be honored for something else. I can still cure cancer. We'll see.

Q. You work in the Urology Department, correct? I have to ask ...

A. Yes, I know. I get a lot of joking about that.

Q. What's next in your brewing career?

A. I don't know. That's a good question. I'm just thrilled that I won that contest. Actually, I have a beer, a stout, that will be going to a national competition called the Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing. So I get to go there, where I am also giving a talk on yeast biology.