From biochem to brewing: UMSL grad opens Iowa City Brewlab with dad

Biochemistry graduate Nathan Letcher is head brewer for Iowa City (Iowa) Brewlab, the new science-themed craft brewery he and his father opened this holiday season. (Photos courtesy of Nathan Letcher)

Biochemistry graduate Nathan Letcher is head brewer for Iowa City Brewlab, the new science-themed craft brewery he and his father opened this holiday season. (Photos courtesy of Nathan Letcher)

Nathan Letcher celebrated his University of Missouri–St. Louis graduation from afar last week while brewing his first batches of craft beer to be tapped before Christmas at Iowa City (Iowa) Brewlab.

The brand new brewery is his father’s business venture, which opened this holiday season. A former software engineer, his father was looking for a change-up from “cubicle city” and each had a mutual appreciation for the brewing business. As head brewer, Letcher has played a formative role in the planning. And with “Brewlab” in the name, it’s clear his science background has come into play.

“The science theme grew out of my interest in fermentation,” Letcher said. “I originally became interested in chemistry when I was working as a baker and line cook at a restaurant in Iowa City, and the head chef gave me a copy of Harold McGee’s, ‘On Food and Cooking.’ I became a much better cook after I gained an appreciation for the changes that cooking inspires at a molecular level.”

While Nathan Letcher celebrated graduation afar, he brewed one of the first batches of beer to go on tap at Iowa City Brewlab. He's been home-brewing beer for seven years.

While Nathan Letcher celebrated graduation afar, he brewed one of the first batches of beer to go on tap at Iowa City Brewlab. He’s been home-brewing beer for seven years.

Letcher has home-brewed beer for seven years and worked at breweries in different cities from Eureka, Calif., to St. Louis, where he had an internship at now shuttered Six Row Brewing. That hands-on experience inspired him to go back to school.

“I knew that with years of hard, physical labor I could eventually work my way up the ladder, but I thought why not devote that time to educating myself instead?” he said. “Making beer involves a lot of complex science, and I was really curious to understand it better.”

So Letcher enrolled in UMSL’s Biochemistry and Biotechnology Program. However, he didn’t take the beer-brewing course, which he said is geared more toward nonscience majors. His program work taught him more about the microbial and chemical world – knowledge that went beyond basic beer brewing science.

“I know more now about health and the human body than I ever imagined I would. Once you recognize the interrelatedness of all species on all scales, you begin to make associations between microscopic and macroscopic phenomena. That was the beauty of the program – it encompassed so many aspects of the physical and speculative world.”

He had planned to go into quality control, but when his father decided to open up IC Brewlab, there was no question where Letcher would end up. For him, the brewery is about more than just beer – it’s about fermentation in general.

“The menu will consist almost wholly of fermented foods,” Letcher said. “Many of the foods that we most enjoy – coffee, chocolate, bread, olives, cured meats, cheeses, sauerkraut, pickles – are fermented. We believe that caring for and cultivating one’s own microbial community is essential to health and well-being.”

So while IC Brewlab is definitely a brewery, it’s also a learning experience.

“Educating our customers about the flavors of the myriad beer styles we are producing is an important aspect of marketing our business,” he said. “ Beer has a sordid history and rich identity in our culture beyond a means of getting drunk.”

You can expect a bright, modern atmosphere at IC Brewlab that is conducive to conversation, as opposed to the dark, loud, crowded college sports bars.

“This is an alternative experience we’re offering,” Letcher said.

He also divulged what will be on tap if you stumble into IC Brewlab this week.

“Our first batch is an ESB, or extra epecial bitter, which is an English style of pale ale,” he said. “Our second batch is a pale ale that is singly-hopped with citra hops. We plan to use a different hop every time we brew that recipe to allow ourselves and our customers to experience all of the different characters that hops can lend to a beer.”

IC Brewlab also plans on having a couple of IPAs in the rotation regularly. They recently procured some used whiskey barrels from Cedar Ridge, a local winery and distillery in Iowa, and are considering brewing a “golden barley wine” to fill those with.

“My favorite aspect of brewing beer is the freedom it gives you to invent something new and to produce something yourself that only you can imagine,” Letcher said. “In this respect it is an art.”
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