Once a physicist: Bart Larson

Bart Larson is the co-owner and operator of the Mt. Begbie Brewing Company in Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada

Bart Larson

What sparked your interest in physics?
My favourite high-school subjects were physics, mathematics and chemistry (plus PE), so it just seemed like the path to take when I went to university. My father owned a logging-truck company and I spent a considerable amount of time helping him do repairs on large diesel trucks. Looking back, I guess I simply liked learning how things work. I think I saw physics as the most fundamental discipline, one that perhaps demanded more intuition and logical thought, and the least amount of memorization.

What drew you to experimental nuclear physics?
I think that it was a combination of my first quantum-mechanics course, in which I was struck by the predictive power of the theory, coupled with a general nuclear-physics course that I really enjoyed. A tour of the TRIUMF particle-physics lab in my third year also left me with the feeling that "I'd really like to work here – there are lots of big toys". Then, when I went to Simon Fraser University (British Columbia) for graduate studies, there happened to be a very well respected experimental physicist there, Otto Hausser, who was doing research at TRIUMF and had work for another graduate student.

Why did you go into brewing?
Beer. I have enjoyed beer since I was old enough to do so by law (and perhaps even before). Curiosity – the most important of scientific personality traits – led me to try a Newcastle Brown Ale and that opened my eyes to other styles of beer that were totally different from the Canadian lager to which I was too well accustomed. Looking for a cheaper way to enjoy a variety of beer styles led me to homebrewing, which I practised from my late teens until I started the Mt. Begbie Brewing Company. Of course, you cannot just homebrew and be happy, you have to try and do it better and to evolve your techniques until one day you say to yourself "I should just do this full time." I am sure many brewers in the craft-beer industry started out the same way.

What led you to start your own business?
After a couple of postdocs I was not sure where my future in physics lay. TRIUMF's path was a bit uncertain at the time and I did not really want to move or travel to one of the high-energy facilities. My wife and I also had a growing passion for outdoor sports such as mountain biking, hiking and skiing so it was not hard to convince her that a small town would suit our lifestyle much better. Of course, my parents had started their own business and were super-hard-working people so the idea did not really frighten me. All these factors together led to one inevitable path, I guess. If there had been a particle accelerator in Revelstoke (my home town), I would probably still be doing physics.

How does your training in physics help you in beer making?
Commercial brewing is a highly technical profession and my physics training has been a huge asset. I could make a list that goes from mathematical skills to basic mechanics and electricity to working in a team environment. Most important, however, is that a science education trains you to think logically and the troubleshooting skills you gain are invaluable. And believe me, you use these skills every day – not just in the realm of technology but on the business side as well. They apply anywhere.

What is your favourite beer you have brewed at Mt. Begbie?
This is a tough question because beer taste has a time dependence. In the summer, a lighter, more refreshing beer like our High Country Kolsch may hit the spot best. In winter, a darker, heavier beer like our Bob's Your Dunkel dunkelweizen style beer (8% alcohol by volume) may be the ticket. On a pure, one-time nirvana basis, though, I would say our Selkirk Stout was my favourite. There are moments with all of our beers where I have a drink and say to myself "We are doing a great job."

Do you keep up with developments in physics?
Unfortunately, no. Running a business is fairly all-consuming and it is something you work at every day – a lot like being a scientist – if you are passionate about what you do. In fact, my old supervisor Otto was fond of saying "Bart, if you want to be a physicist, you should do some physics every day." Of course, he said this when we were working at the lab one Sunday. I have kept in touch with a couple of my old cronies, so I get updates from time to time.

Any advice for today's physics students?
Try as many different beers as possible – just not all at the same time! Also, anything is possible if you work at it hard enough; so if you do not have it already, develop a strong work ethic. And by all means, do some physics every day, but it is also important to stay physically active.

This article appears in the September 2011 issue of Physics World

last edited: October 01, 2012

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