Richard Curtis Bird spends most of his time working as a professor in molecular biology and cancer genetics for Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, but during his free time, he’s learned how to properly brew craft beers.
Bird began his career by getting a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis in biochemistry, where he graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1977. He then further pursued his career through a Ph.D. in molecular genetics at the University of Toronto.
In addition to his work in science, Bird has been brewing beer for over 45 years, since he was 20 years old. He said that he learned to brew because of the state of the eukaryotic model at the time he was in school.
“Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the eukaryotic model of genetics was yeast, so we learned our yeast up and down,” he said.
This sparked Bird’s home-brewing interest with the help of some colleagues, during which time home brewing was perfectly legal.
Bird said that back when he was working to legalize state brewing in Auburn, he met the only other brewer that was more passionate about the subject than himself.
“The only person I’ve ever met who’s brewed longer than me is the godfather of American home brewing, Charlie Papazian, who was the past president of the American Home Brewing Society,” Bird said. “He’s a nuclear engineer that then quit his job and started doing this full time decades ago.”
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About 15 years ago, Bird moved to Auburn and taught the current department head for hospitality and hotel management, Martin O’Neill, how to brew beer. O’Neill then began seeking out ways to create programs that could incorporate this craft into Auburn students’ learning, Bird said.
“I moved here from Ontario, and I thought, ‘Wow, Alabama, that’s a leap,’ but we thought, we’d give it five years,” he said. “This summer, it will be 35 years.”
Both O’Neill and Bird debated teaching undergrad programs, but underage students became too great of a hurdle. Now, however, O’Neill teaches beverage appreciation classes to seniors, and Bird teaches two classes online.
These classes are designed to be completed in a year, broken down as six classes that are taken three semesters in a row, two classes a semester. The classes require a solid foundation of math and science.
“Scientists make very good creative people when they have to put their talents to other uses,” Bird said.
After taking these classes, students are then able to sit for the Institute for Brewing and Distilling exam. He said that this test is the gold standard for certification and verifies that they produce authentic, certifiable, master brewers.
In addition to teaching classes, Bird said he also collaborates with local breweries, such as Red Clay Brewery in Opelika, in order to help them better understand and manage their beer-making processes.
In order to assist the breweries in the best way possible, Bird has created a team comprised of Julie Howe, who manages soil, David Martin, who aids in scaling the brewing process, and Dave Ketchen, who helps with the entrepreneurial aspect of crafting beer. Bird said this group of people have been an integral part of his ability to teach others.
“I can tell you that the science faculty at the veterinary school are wonderfully collegial,” Bird said.
The process of making beer involves several specific steps that require time and patience, though Bird said people involved in beer making try to joke about it.
“We make jokes about what it takes to make beer,” Bird said. “You need a grass, a weed, a fungus and water.”
Though beer making has become a large part of his life, Bird said he only drinks a moderate amount and gives the rest away, mainly when Auburn holds their annual celebration of Oktoberfest.
“If I drank as much beer as I make, I would be a cone,” he said.
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