Phil Chou and Grant Merrill: Smooth hoperators

When research chemists Phil Chou (Chem Ph.D. ’92) and Grant Merrill (Chem Ph.D. ’96) met in grad school at the University of Minnesota, they discovered a common interest. Little did they realize how decisively it would shape their later careers.

That’s because many grad students had the same interest.

“You know, the graduate school experience definitely includes drinking our share of beer,” Chou said with a laugh. “I certainly wasn’t looking at it as a career at that point.”

All that changed. These days Chou and Merrill have given up careers in academia and industry to devote their energies to running Dirty Hands Brewing Co. in Vancouver, Wash.

“We just wanted to get out and do something on our own and build something on our own. We said, ‘Let’s try this. We’re getting to the age where we’ve got to do it now, or it’s never going to happen.’”

–Phil Chou

Chou earned his doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Minnesota in 1992 (a few years ahead of Merrill). After postdoc work and an initial interest in an academic career, Chou switched his focus to industry, working for several years in research and development for a chemical company in Indiana.

One day he spotted a job ad for Miller Brewing in Milwaukee. “I thought that was kind of cool, so I applied for it, not really expecting to get the job because it was so different from what I was doing then,” Chou said.

But he was hired and soon was learning about the chemistry of hops, the flowers of the hop plant that impart tangy flavor to beer. “I was definitely a beer drinker and thought it was just a real fun way to apply my education and training,” he said.

Chou says his chemistry degree prepared him for the transition from plastics to beer. “The hallmark of any Ph.D. is that it gives you the tools to tackle problems that may be outside your area of expertise. Certainly that was the case with Miller.”

Chou lost his job after South African Breweries bought Miller in 2002. He then joined E. & J. Gallo Winery. “I grew up in southern California so going back West was very attractive to me,” he said. “Plus it gave me a chance to work with another alcoholic beverage—wine, which at the time I didn’t really know much about.”

He spent nearly 10 years researching the chemistry of winemaking, from vineyard to table. Meanwhile, he and Merrill, formerly a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, stayed in touch. Occasionally, Chou would mention the dream he nurtured of using his burgeoning knowledge of beverages to start his own brewery. It was a dream Merrill shared.

“We reached a point in our lives where we just got tired of working for large organizations with big bureaucracies,” Chou said. “We just wanted to get out and do something on our own and build something on our own. We said, ‘Let’s try this. We’re getting to the age where we’ve got to do it now, or it’s never going to happen.’”

They researched the business, wrote a business plan, and considered locations to open their brewery. Both liked the Portland area. Unfortunately, Chou said, “There’s a ton of competition in Portland.” But just across the Columbia River was a different story.

“The more we looked into it, the better Vancouver, Wash., looked.”

They found an old newspaper building, once occupied by The Columbian, and named their enterprise Dirty Hands Brewing for the ink-smudged fingers of newspaper workers and readers. “People either like or hate the name,” said Chou. “But I’ll ask them, are you going to remember the name? They always say ‘yes’.” It was a leap for both men—from high-paying jobs with benefits to working without a safety net. “It was definitely exciting, it was scary,” Chou said. “Neither of us had ever worked a cash register. Yeah, it was definitely a risk.”

Dirty Hands opened last November, with a taproom at street level, and all the brewery equipment in the basement, with tanks that can hold 108.5 gallons. The brewery has a total fermentation capacity of 434 gallons or 14 barrels. By contrast, Chou said, “Miller in a day spills more beer than we’ll make this year.”

Reflecting on the turns in his career, Chou offers this advice to would-be chemists. “Just learn as much as you can wherever you go and keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.”