Ever wonder what goes on after San Francisco’s Exploratorium closes its doors at night?
Inside the 75,000-square-foot waterfront museum, in an industrial kitchen away from the hands-on art and science exhibits, a small but dedicated group of staffers has been working on something utterly top secret and totally scientific.
They make beer. First they drink some, of course. Then, they make it, everything from American red ale to dark saison, often using only the supplies on site.
They call themselves the hOppenheimers — a brew-centric nod to the museum’s founder, physicist Frank Oppenheimer — and rely on good old scientific ingenuity. You can taste their latest creations and learn how to calculate a beer’s alcohol at the annual Science of Cocktails fundraiser on Feb. 9. Can’t make the event? The club’s Living Lager, made in collaboration with San Francisco’s Fort Point Beer Company, is also available in the museum’s SeaGlass Restaurant.
The hOppenheimers are a diverse and quirky bunch, with members in their 20s to 60s, who hail from multiple departments, including graphic design, exhibit development and the biology lab. They have no set meetings, agenda or membership dues. Everyone is welcome, from novice to nerdy home brewer. “Sometimes we have 10 people in the kitchen during a brew and sometimes we have less,” says Amy Snyder, the museum’s director of photography and an early member of the club, which has been going for nearly four years.
Typically, a hOppenheimer will come to Beer Friday with a six-pack and an idea for a particular brew she wants to make — a seasonal, perhaps, or a sour — and other members chime in. Like so many inventions at the Exploratorium, the beers are a product of creative and collaborative efforts. “Everyone comes at it with their own skill set,” Snyder says. “It’s fun to watch.”
One night, as they were getting ready to place their grain mixture — the mash — into the glass carboy to begin fermentation, they broke their only airlock. That’s when a few folks from the biology lab, including Denise King and Alex Pinigis, had a thought. “Wait here,” they said. “Be back in a minute.”
They returned with a few random items — a stopper, a small Tupperware cup, a tube and a plastic fruit-fly vial — and a few minutes later, they had fashioned a new airlock.
Another time, exhibit developer Vicente Oropeza modified a copper-coil immersion chiller, an important piece of equipment used to bring down the temperature of hot wort, or unfermented beer, so that the hOppenheimers could chill down two batches of beer at once. Oropeza’s modification helped expedite the chilling process from an hour to 15 minutes.
“We’re very ad hoc, which is kind of the way things work around here,” says Ray Larsen, a senior graphic designer and “on and off” home brewer of 30 years. “I’ve always plateaued in my skills to the point that I needed some science. That’s what’s cool about our group. Everyone knows a little piece and it ends up filling a hole in my knowledge, so we’re able to grow as brewers.”
And grow as inventors. Design engineer Adam Esposito, a member of the shOppenheimers, a sub-group of the hOppenheimers, is working on an all-grain, gravity-fed sculpture that makes beer. It’s a metal rack with three cascading stages, each with a burner and a pot that hold mash, hops and all the other brewing essentials. Ultimately, they plan to display the sculpture at the Exploratorium — for live demonstrations.
“It’s essentially an all-in-one beer robot,” Larsen says. “And that’s in the true spirit of our exhibitions.”
Beer: The fascinating brew club inside San Francisco’s Exploratorium