Visitors to Postdoc Brewing Company’s taproom can satisfy their thirst with Prereq Pale Ale, Cram Session Coffee Porter, or Postdoc Porter, among other offerings. Many of the customers at the Redmond, Washington, brewery don’t really understand the name. Some think it’s “Post-dock,” for those coming for a drink after a day on the boat, or “Post-dog,” because it is a dog-friendly brewery and is next to a park popular with dog walkers. Even those familiar with academic research and its key laborers sometimes ask about the name’s origin.
“It was the name that I called my garage brewery,” explains postdoc Tom Schmidlin, the founder and head brewer of Postdoc Brewing Company. Schmidlin earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, in 2011, 3 years before opening the brewery. Schmidlin and the team behind the new brewery and taproom “spent hours and hours and hours trying to come up with a name that resonated with any of us, or all of us, and we couldn’t,” he says. “We just figured, we’ll go with something that has some meaning to us.”
We’ve incorporated a lot of science into the way we brew, but there’s still plenty of room for the art to come through.
A dream deferred
“Owning a brewery and being a brewer is something I’ve been thinking about for a very long time,” Schmidlin says. He began brewing beer in 1990 while he was an undergraduate studying mechanical engineering at Lehigh University. “It’s just something that I started doing and then just never stopped,” he says. “I lived, at one point, in a 285-square-foot apartment; it was a little, tiny studio, and I still brewed there. At one point, I had five batches of beer going. It was definitely something that I focused a lot of attention on.”
For almost 25 years, though, this labor of love was relegated to his spare time. For his first job out of college, he developed equipment for Starbucks. After a few years there—it was the late 1990s, and the country was in the grips of the dot-com boom—he decided to shelve his mechanical engineering training and learn computer programming. “I didn’t have a lot of background in programming, but it was a busy time, and companies were desperate for people who could learn things,” he says. He worked as a programmer for a few years—while still home-brewing of course—but when the tech bubble burst, he found himself unemployed. “The whole dot-com bust had reared its ugly head, and there were a lot of out-of-work software engineers with far more education and experience than I had, so it didn’t seem like [staying in programming] would be a viable career path,” he recalls.
He put himself on a list to buy a brewery, but someone beat him to it. So, instead, he went back to school—but rather than continue down the computer science path, he chose to study “something a little nearer and dearer to my heart”: yeast. He had worked with yeast extensively as a brewer but had never formally studied biology or conducted biology research, so first he worked as a research assistant in a yeast lab at UW Seattle and took the biology prerequisites he would need to get admitted to a biochemistry graduate program.
Once admitted, Schmidlin used his computer programming skills to pursue a project that combined yeast studies and computational work. He kept brewing and thinking about owning a brewery—he even had conversations with a potential partner—but after he earned his Ph.D., he decided to stick to a more traditional career path and take a postdoc position. He didn’t want to uproot his family—a wife and twins, born his first year of graduate school—so he found a position at another UW yeast lab. A few months in, though, funding fell through, and he went to work part time in his old graduate school lab.
It was during this uncertain time that he got his big break. A local ice cream shop looking to expand into brewing needed a part-time brewer. Schmidlin jumped at the chance and spent about a year and a half splitting his time between studying protein conformations and brewing beer. This first professional experience as a brewer was an important experiment, he says. “There’s always the open question of, ‘Do you want to take this hobby that you really enjoy so much and turn it into a career?’ Within the first couple of months of working there, I realized the answer was, ‘Yes, I definitely do.’ ” It was time to get started.
He left the ice cream shop but stayed on in the UW lab to finish some projects and earn money as he started up his new venture. Then, in June 2014, he threw himself full time into Postdoc Brewing, which he co-owns with his wife and their neighbors, another husband-and-wife pair. The grand opening took place in February. “It’s all going great,” he says, “way better than I think we could have reasonably expected. … People like the beer.”
Schmidlin views his brewery as an opportunity to produce great beer and continue his research career, although from quite a different angle than a traditional researcher. “As far as brewing goes, I’m never going to be done learning,” he says. “There’s so much that we don’t understand.” He is working to expand his brewery’s lab—a feature he says is unusual at breweries this size. “I really want to do research on beer and publish that research. We want to study this stuff. It’s fun.”
Whether or not it’s approached as a research project, “a batch of beer is almost an experiment every time you make it,” Schmidlin says. “How’s it going to turn out? Did you set everything up right or not? You’re relying on your senses to tell you if it’s going the way it should. If it’s not, you cut your losses and dump it and make another one.” This ability to regroup and try again, and to know when it’s time to cut your losses, is something he honed in graduate school, where experiments frequently fail and lines of inquiry can end up at dead ends. He says his time in the lab, his mechanical engineering background, and his experience working at Starbucks have all helped make him comfortable with the equipment he uses for brewing, which at brewery scale is much more complicated and dangerous than home-brewing equipment.
In addition to the brewing, Schmidlin enjoys engaging in informal science education with his customers. “People who like beer are very fascinated by the process of making it and how that works,” he says. “It’s way easier to get people engaged in the science of brewing than probably in the science of anything else.” It may not be quite the same as teaching a college course, but, Schmidlin says, “we’re fans of education.” In the fall, he plans to offer classes about different beer styles and to award a grant, funded by the sales of a special beer, to a selected graduate student or postdoc, who will also give a lecture at the brewery to a lay audience.
The science is a big part of what excites him about brewing, but Schmidlin also takes pleasure in craftsmanship. “Most of the beers we make I’ve never brewed before,” he says. “They may not exactly turn out the way I expected, but they’ve all been good. … Brewing is both a science and an art. We’ve incorporated a lot of science into the way we brew, but there’s still plenty of room for the art to come through.”