NPR logo A Scientist's Journey From Beer To Microbiology To Bourbon-Making


A Scientist's Journey From Beer To Microbiology To Bourbon-Making

Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va., where hops grow in his garden. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery. Richard Harris/NPR hide caption

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Richard Harris/NPR

Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va., where hops grow in his garden. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.

Richard Harris/NPR

If you have been following the various posts about beer on The Salt, you may have noticed a pattern: Many of the folks making beer have a scientific background. There's good reason for that. People don't make beer. Yeast does. Well, OK — it's a partnership.

And sometimes, it's a two-way street between the brewery and the lab.

"I originally became a microbiologist because I was brewing beer in my apartment in college," says Ian Glomski of Charlottesville, Va. "I was making awful-tasting beer; I wanted to find out why. I signed up for a microbiology course and isolated all the organisms in my awful-tasting beer."

He found out the beer was contaminated with lactobacillus (which you find in yogurt), "which is fine for your health but doesn't make good-tasting beer. But that piqued my interest in microbiology specifically, and that brought me down the road to become an infectious disease researcher."

Glomski went on to get a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, and then went to work at the world-renowned Institut Pasteur in Paris. Yes, as in Louis Pasteur, the "Father of Microbiology."

Last week, we told the story about why Glomski quit his job as an anthrax researcher at the University of Virginia. He was frustrated that he couldn't get grants to do the kind of research that interested him. So after mulling over his options, he decided to open a distillery.

Glomski rounded up some investors and started Vitae Spirits. It's a more elaborate process to make bourbon, rum and gin than it is to make beer. Yeast starts the process by converting plant sugars into alcohol, but yeast can't survive in an environment that's more than about 17 percent alcohol. So the alcohol needs to be extracted to make the hard stuff.

"I've always — I should say this carefully — I've always loved alcohol, I've always loved the production process, and now that I can integrate my interest in microbes and things of that sort, it all just came together," he says.

To do that, Glomski ordered a custom-built still. (In case you were wondering, it takes a year to make one.)

He's looking forward to the many ways he can put it to use. "When you look at spirits there is just a massive array of production techniques at different levels. Here is simple example with the apple," Glomski tells us in an email. "You can ferment apple juice into cider — an 'apple wine' that has been transformed by microbes into components more complex than the starting juice. When you distill that cider, you can have a colorless eau de vie (apple jack), or place it in a barrel to make apple brandy, all of which carry the flavor signature of the fermentation process. With those same apples you can drop some tasty apples in a neutral spirit (like Everclear) to make an infusion that involves no fermentation at all.

"Another way you can use that apple is to extract its essential oils by placing it in the vapor column of the still so that all of the fragrances from the apple are captured, but none of the heavy sugars, acids, or base components. This apple essence can be a product unto itself or mixed in with other aromas to make something completely new," Glomski writes.

(Yep. He still thinks like a scientist.)

And, after a considerable search, Glomski located a property in Charlottesville, where he plans to set up shop. The challenge was to find a spot where he could handle flammable liquids, yet have a tasting room on the premises.

Though he's leaving academia in frustration, he says he learned some valuable skills during his short career.

"The truth of the matter is as a [lab chief] I was a small-business owner," he says. "I had to raise money; I had to pay my salary; I had to pay my students' salary and my technician's salary."

"It wasn't exactly a free market situation," Glomski says, since his "customers" were agencies that would provide research funding if he wrote a compelling enough proposal. But a lot of what he learned is helping him start his own business. It also helps a lot that he's been involved in his family's wine business, which includes the Arizona Stronghold winery and Page Springs Cellars.

One other lesson learned: You need lots of government permits to start a distillery.

"Maybe someday I'll write a little article about whether it was more difficult to go through the paperwork to work with anthrax, or whether it's going to be more difficult for me to make some bourbon," Glomski says. "They're both awfully complicated, so we'll see."