Before Ethan Cox helped found and run Community Beer Works, he landed a doctorate in cognitive psychology and taught at D’Youville College. He revels in the science of beer, so it’s no accident that he has been among the driving forces of Beerology, an annual event at the Buffalo Museum of Science to raise money for family-centered programs and exhibits there.
“Beerology is on the list of the best Western New York beer events because it’s one of the coolest fundraising events in town,” Cox said. “How great is it to drink beer in that space, in that environment? How great is it to support an institution where Buffalonians remember going to as kids? While it has changed over the years, there’s more than a few exhibit pieces that are still there. You see the pendulum. You see the bear. You see the triceratops.”
Cox has a family membership for the museum. He, his wife, Jen, who also hold a psychology Ph.D., and their sons Phineas, 9, and Aleister, 7 are regulars. The kids will have to stay home for Beerology, which will take place March 4. It’s a 21-and-older event. Tickets go on sale Thursday and normally get gobbled up quickly. Cost for the fundraiser is $45, or $40 for nonmembers and $65 for VIP; buy tickets at sciencebuff.org or by calling 896-5200, Ext. 359.
Visitors also can enjoy the new exhibit “GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World,” presented by M&T Bank and opening Jan. 21 for a limited engagement.
Beerology makes its ninth annual appearance at the museum next year. Western New York had only a handful of craft breweries at the time. Today there are 23 – with at least two more in the works next year.
Cox joined the planning committee for the event in the spring of 2011, before Community Beer Works started brewing on the West Side.
“It was a very natural fit to want to support the science museum,” he said.
[RELATED STORY: CBW announces it will open a brewery in Niagara Falls]
Q. You were a psychology professor at D’Youville before you went into the beer business. What else did you do for a living before you owned and managed CBW?
I spent my life in academics, either as a student or grad student or as a post-doc. The brief amount of time I held a job it was at D’Youville teaching. I wasn’t doing research and that was part of the issue.
Q. You are a certified cicerone. What’s that?
It is essentially a beer sommelier. You take tests to demonstrate your knowledge of different aspects of beer: ingredients, process, storing and serving, history, food pairing and affinities of cooking, broadly speaking. It is a little bit more focused than being a sommelier.
Q. What intrigues you most about the science of beer?
There’s often times in craft beer where we talk about the artistic side of brewing. I believe there is an artistic side, and it’s nice that brewers can be thought of as chefs – rock stars, I don’t know, but chefs – but behind that art it is very importantly a science. Consistency and quality come from applying industrial and applied scientific principles. If you want to figure out how to change something about a batch, just like a scientist you want to control and adjust one variable at a time to see its impact so you can relate that variable to causal factors. If you want to do the same batch over and over again, it’s a simple as being diligent with note-taking and saying, “If those hops go in at this time, then they go in at this time.” You also need some science because the amount of bitterness those hops are going to give to the beer can vary from crop to crop. So you’ve got to look at the analysis on those hops and adjust the amount of hops that you use depending on whether you’re still using the 2014 hops you’ve got in your freezer or now you’re working on your 2015 hops. You do need to understand how to adjust recipes and that’s mathematics.
Q. Was science your favorite subject in school?
I liked them all. I enjoyed science. I had a very memorable science teacher in eighth grade at Olmsted School (Lynn Widger) that inspired me. I also had good teachers at City Honors and beyond.
Q. Talk about Beerology. How did it begin and what role have you played in the annual event?
My role has ebbed and flowed. The year I came on board, (Flying Bison founder and co-owner) Tim Herzog was also involved. I’ve interacted with three different directors. The first year, because we didn’t have beer, I gave some suggestions and tried to be helpful. By the next year and years after that, I was active on the organizing board. It was still a little bit smaller and we grew it a lot. We also expanded the number of people involved in the planning and got the logistics down pat: the recruitment of volunteers, setup and tear-down, things that stay the same year after year even as you get bigger. The homebrewers were happy because we at Community Beer Works are homebrewers or ex-homebrewers. In most respects, that’s common in the industry. We love ‘em as customers, too. The conversations you have with your homebrewers are pretty great. All those years, I’ve tried to make more and better space for the homebrewers, and the Niagara Association of Home Brewers and their brew club allies have continued to further elaborate their demonstrations, which is great.
Q. So you’ve helped it grow as the craft beer industry has grown?
It was always important to us that we ran a fundraiser. We knew there were two crowds that were going to come to this. One crowd is going to be people who support the museum and who go to wine events and stuff like this, then people who go to beer things. For the people who go to beer things we wanted to say, “Look, this is happening in a museum environment, so let’s cater to that, make it educational, and have programming from year to year that ties the beer into science, or in some cases history. We also wanted to make sure that selection of beers was top-notch and local focused, and not just the kinds of beers you’ll find at every beer event. We’ve leaned hard on the distributors to try to bring beers that will bring out the most knowledgeable beer customers, and we’ve wanted to offer them a premier experience.
Q. What is about Beerology that makes it sell out fairly quickly?
The science museum is a unique space and this is a fundraiser for a good cause.
Q. What are the presentations like?
They vary from year to year. There are things we do on the stage in the auditorium that are more like talks. Those have ranged from the different aspects of process and ingredients when it comes to beer, everything from what is malt and malting, what role does barley play in beer to how beer is put together. I used to do talks on beer pairing, putting food and beer together. There have been talks on the microbiological aspects of beer. I remember talks a couple years ago on yeasts but also infectious agents, things like lactobaccilus, pediococcus or wild yeast. The science of hangovers is very popular. We’ve done that more than once.
The history of Buffalo beer also has been on display. Peter Jablonski, a guy I know through the local beer history and botle collection circuit, is often there in a small space doing a slide show. On the floor, they’ve come up with interesting things, too. I can remember the Buffalo Beer Goddesses, a “Women in Beer” organization, which not only promotes beer drinking but women in the beer profession. They’re putting together a cicerone scholarship.
The homebrewers are involved in some of the talks and do a continuous homebrewing demonstration. They’ll have a mash going on. They’ll have a boil going on. They’ll have a fermentation going on. They have a microscope out. Recently, they’ve had bottle speed racking competitions. Many of these guys are engineer types and really let the geek flag fly at this event setting up these demos. Over the years, they’ve gotten more elaborate.
Q. What will the lineup look like next year?
It’s pretty early in terms of getting breweries lined up and on board. I haven’t seen emails quite yet but it won’t be long. You can expect all the breweries within arm’s reach will be invited. We do like to have that emphasis on local favorites.
Q. Where do you and fellow brewers tend to get together and what do you talk about?
We don’t have a regular group meeting going. There have been various attempts but things have been changing so rapidly that people came and left the scene. It’d be nice if someone spearheaded that effort again. We see each other for the most part at events – things like Beerology and the giant radio station show that takes three days. During those we get a chance to pause and talk and catch up with each other’s plans. We catch up with each other’s beers, too. We talk about beer, by and large. It’s not like we don’t talk about anything else, though. If there’s people I know that have families, I’ll ask after kids and wives. We’re all into beer so boom, we’ll talk about beer.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon