A few days ago I picked up a glossy magazine in Starbucks left behind by a previous customer. It was called Whiskey Advocate.
We brewers are jacks-of-all-trades; we are interested in many things because it takes a diversity of knowledge from biology, chemistry and sensory science to chemical engineering and management to understand how a brewery works to do its work.
Making whiskey is a close relative of brewing because one must make a beer from grains before one can concentrate the alcohol by distillation.
And so I looked through the magazine.
Almost immediately I ran across an article that ruminated upon the whiskey-making renaissance in the “World’s Greatest Whiskey Cities.” These turned out to be Edinburgh, Dublin, Louisville and Osaka.
Last year about this time I was in Dublin. As part of a city tour I passed a number of iconic alcohol locations. The main one was the Guinness brewery, of course, but I also saw a church bearing the sign Pearse Lyons’ Distillery. This was notable for two reasons: it was a whiskey-making church and I have known a person by the name of Pearse Lyons for many years. And the Pearse Lyons I have known would be exactly the kind of person who would build a distillery in a church in Dublin.
I did not visit that distillery while in Dublin, but I searched the article in Whiskey Advocate for news of Pearse Lyons’ Distillery. There it was, in a short paragraph, squeezed into an article that was really about the ancient and more famous Jamieson Distillery. I have stolen a photograph from the article showing the small scale of the equipment at Pearse Lyon’s Distillery and the stained glass window behind it.
That set me thinking about Pearse whom I have heard from only occasionally over many years.
I first met Pearse when I was on sabbatical leave at the British School of Malting and Brewing, Department of Biochemistry, University of Birmingham, England, in the early 1970s. Pearse and I had a certain kinship because we had similar education and interests in brewing and biochemistry and engineering and in yeast research. Pearse was finishing his research for his Ph,D degree.
We chatted quite a bit and it soon became clear to me that Pearse had an unusual focus not merely on the outcome of his research but also on how it could be promoted and turned into practical applications that would create income. Those qualities, that would later be included in his obituary describing him as a scientist, visionary, entrepreneur and salesman, were already in his kitbag as a young man.
By the 1980s Pearse and his family had immigrated to Lexington KY where he started a private company called Alltech that is still wholly family owned. This company initially focusedon the alcohol industry, including brewing but primarily on distilling. This rapidly morphed into one of the leading animal welfare and nutrition companies, based in yeast biochemistry and technology. The company has become a giant success doing business around the world and made Pearse a billionaire and among the wealthiest Irishmen on the planet. The company also has a brewery and distilleries an algae plant and other business interests.
I had a renewed relationship with Pearse during the late 1980s as a consultant on a number of projects; that was really quite fascinating jack-of-all-trades kind of work at the interface between ideas and practice, and I enjoyed the relationship.
One of the projects arose from a discovery at UCD with which I became involved. Colleagues found a yeast that contained the same pigment that makes salmon flesh pink. As the jack–of–all-trades brewer I got the job of finding out how best to grow this rather difficult yeast and how to make the pink pigment nutritionally available to animals. We succeeded in that quest and had a lot of fun feeding this yeast to chickens to make egg yolks pink and to little salmon that also turned pink.
This was a natural project for Pearse and Alltech and aquaculture application, but the techniques we used at the lab level did not translate to practice.
Pearse loved being Irish and was a staunch Catholic and Notre Dame supporter. He seized every opportunity to involve his country of origin in his business (the Dublin distillery, for example). I made a couple of trips to Ireland on some of those projects, and also gave talks here and there, especially at conferences in Kentucky, on the projects we worked on.
He was also a most generous supporter of the arts and education.
He was a man who lived life to the full every day and at high speed with vigor, determination and focus. He was gregarious and talkative, imaginative and at times driven and imperious. He left a great mark on the world and I’m pleased to have lived a few micro-seconds of his life in parallel with him.
Pearse died in 2018 at the age of 73.
It’s always a surprise and a pleasure when something so mundane as a magazine abandoned at a coffee shop sets off such a stream of recollections.
In the last word let me say that I admired Pearse greatly for what he achieved and the intensity and brilliance with which he pursued his vision. But I always wondered at what cost, in family and love and time, that success came. Like many such driven men Pearse had another side and, despite our cooperation over several years, I was always wary of him.
Michael J. Lewis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis, and the academic director and lead instructor of UC Davis Extension’s Professional Brewing Programs. Lewis has been honored with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas’ Award of Merit and the Brewers Association’s Recognition Award. He is an elected fellow of the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. He is also a recipient of the UC Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.