Peter Oates was making a lot of trips to Vermont. As a beer lover, he had been captivated by the hoppy ales coming out of the Green Mountain State and was driving up to stock up his car and drive back home. Soon enough, the regular trips to Hill Farmstead Brewery, The Alchemist, and Lawson’s Finest Liquids started putting strains on his relationships—both work-wise and personal. It was then that his friend Ricardo Petroni suggested Oates take up homebrewing.
“Make the beer yourself,” he said, “and you can avoid having to take these 13-hour trips. And you can make the beers you like.”
The pair are MIT graduates and professional scientists who have worked on complicated projects in sophisticated labs, so it’d be unreasonable to think that Oates would simply head to his nearest Bed Bath & Beyond and grab a Mr. Beer kit.
No, he fashioned his own pilot system from scratch. It’s a standard 5-gallon system but a combination of electric and gas with a lot of automated controls. “We were up to brewing six batches a day,” he says. “I get excited and go a little overboard. So, when I wanted to experiment and realized that I could do six batches a day and that I had six taps, I wanted a semi-automated [system], so I could brew a bunch of stuff in parallel in compressed time.”
When Oates was getting ready to brew his first batch, Petroni suggested dry malt extract (DME), but Oates said no. He started all-grain. And true to Oates’s intent, the first beer they homebrewed was a malty double IPA, named EQM, with orange zest. “It was clear to me after brewing three or four times that [Oates] was going to know a lot more than I did,” says Petroni, who had been homebrewing himself for twenty years. “So, I turned into a helper; it was intense, but fun.”
Because Oates basically ran a beer marathon before ever trying to crawl, going pro was the logical next step. In 2015, the pair cofounded Equilibrium Brewery, turning out the beers they wanted to make (they started selling the beer in 2016).
“We brew what we want to drink,” says Oates. “We make hazy IPA because that’s what we like to drink. You can also turn them faster, and I think that’s important for opening a business. Then we had to decide between stouts and sours, and we’ve put a lot of time into developing our sour program because the women said they like sours more than stouts.”
And up until recently, Oates has been part-time at the brewery, splitting his time between the brewhouse and a laboratory (Equilibrium has a number of other brewers on staff as well). When he met with Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® in late summer, he was preparing to transition to the brewery full time but has no plans to leave lab work behind. In fact, he very much views brewing as an extension of his already established career.
“One thing that I love about brewing so much is that it’s really complicated. Once you get into the weeds, you see that it’s the distribution of thousands of compounds, and looking at which one does what and how it affects the sensory profile is pretty intense.”
The Evolving IPA
“I’m still not 100 percent sure how to make a double IPA,” Oates says. He pauses because he knows it’s an odd thing to say, but he is well-reasoned in the statement. “We make some pretty good double IPAs, but every day we’re continuing to grow and expand our knowledge and processes and then apply that, hopefully, all the way to the glass because at the end of the day, the question is, does it smell good, taste good, feel good in your mouth?”
Oates knows that beer is art and science, and he’s fascinated by both. He’s especially excited by what hops can do and bring to a beer, including how to optimize the process that brings the aromas and flavors to each glass.
There’s trial and error, of course. Going back to the six batches a day he was making as a homebrewer, Oates admits there were a lot of batches that wound up in the bushes. So, these days, he thinks a lot about beer in a reverse-engineering way, working from the finished product in the glass backward. How can you get what you want out of hops—the aromas, the flavors, but maybe not all of the bitterness? It goes all the way back to the silo, the grain you pull, and the temperature you use.
“We don’t reinvent the double IPA each time we brew one; we simply modify it.” he says.
Applying Science to Beer
Currently the brewery is developing a mathematical model for hops. Oates says the framework is done, and they are dialing in parameters.
“We started putting these equations together, saying here’s what we think is happening. And then we try to measure what we can from the values we want, and we plug it in, and it starts telling us about this process.”
They created a beer called Mass Fluxus (brewed with only Citra hops) where they pay attention to the flux. “We have this mathematical tool that says if we change this in the brewing process, we get this,” he says. “To isolate this one thing, it helps to use just one [kind of] hops.” Then they use the tool to make an actual beer.
Life After Line Life
Oates, in his trips to Vermont and as a lover of beer, is no stranger to life on the beer line. He enjoys the camaraderie and appreciates the passion. He will admit, however, to being a little surprised when, after Equilibrium opened, folks started lining up about 4:30 a.m. for a can release scheduled for hours later.
So, now they show up early as well. When it’s cold, they set up heat lamps for folks in line. They open the brewery doors for restroom needs, and Oates will often make a brisket for folks. It’s all part of being in the community, but it also fosters good will. While the brewery is growing—a proper taproom is currently under construction—they know that there’s no guarantee to keep beer drinkers interested and coming back and clamoring for each new release.
“I think that everyone should buffer [their business] against their customers losing interest.”