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Tapping into Art and Science

How two alums used their degrees in geological sciences and English to help create Bent Water Brewing Co.

BY LYNN EMBICK ’11G

It was November of 2015 when the first batch of beer was brewed on site at Bent Water Brewing Company in Lynn, Massachusetts. Business has been booming, but the brewery -- located off the Lynnway at the site of the former Lynn Lumber -- might not exist today if not for Salem State alums, Priscilla Swain ’10, an English major, and John Erik Strom ’13, a geological sciences major, who first met in 2007.

Both majored in theatre at the outset. Priscilla changed her major to English and earned a bachelor’s degree with a professional writing concentration in 2010. While considering master’s programs, she found employment through a fellow alum putting her English skills to work in the health care industry. John Erik put his schooling on pause to work on boats in the Florida Keys, the Caribbean, and later, Gloucester while gaining a working knowledge of the ocean, boating, engineering and repair.

When he returned to school he signed up for a course in historical geology taught by professor Brad Hubeny. John Erik’s exemplary work led to an invitation to participate in a field camp experience in Montana where he would conduct geological surveys and develop mapmaking skills. Highly motivated, John Erik submitted his map, earned an A, and was told that he “broke the curve.” 

In 2013, he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in geological sciences. In addition to the experience in Montana, he had worked on a project with professor Hubeny creating slides from core samples of lake sediment to gauge the geological history of Icelandic lakes. He also travelled to the University of Minnesota to study geological core samples, and collected water samples from source streams to identify lake deposits in Iceland.

John Erik had become friendly with Priscilla’s former employer, Aaron Reames. They brewed beer together, and would often discuss home brewing, micro brewing, and opening a brewery. As time went on, John Erik looked to gain experience in the retail side of the beer and wine industry when he took a job at Henry’s in North Beverly. He was working as a swim coach, interviewing for environmental geology positions, and considering grad school when Aaron approached him about an opportunity to open their own brewery.

Conditions were right, and Aaron and John Erik, along with partners Chris Crawford and Mike Shaughnessy, converted the former Lynn Lumber into Bent Water Brewing Co. To prepare for its opening, John Erik, co-founder and head brewer, obtained extensive training in Europe and three years of planning led to the brewery being built out in just 12 weeks.

There was a hidden benefit. While much of the area gets its water from the Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts, Lynn gets its water from a rich network of natural ponds. John Erik calls it “some of the best tasting water in the state.” Making up 90-95 percent of beer by weight, water is crucial in the science of beer making, and using unique water means that Bent Water can guarantee a unique product.

Every new beer is an opportunity for a new science experiment. John Erik forms a hypothesis, determines the methods needed, carries out the protocol, records results, and then analyzes the results. Feedback is essential, as he says results from these experiments are subject to individual taste. With 13 taps, the brewery aims to have a beer for everybody. 

John Erik credits the Salem State scientific culture with teaching him to take constructive criticism. Writing research papers for peer review, he says, was all about receiving criticism. “You expect a conversation to ensue around a thought. I need to know what people think of my beer,” he says.

John Erik feels that the hands-on experiences he was afforded at Salem State made all the difference for him, and at Salem State he learned how to think comprehensively, applying the scientific process to everyday problems. “Studying science is all about looking at possibilities and exploring the variables,” he explains. Giving the sales team a straight answer about the timing of a product is not an easy task when things like equipment failure, yeast variance or sick crew members may skew results.

With her communications skills, Priscilla maintains a social media presence for the brewery while helping to market the product and promote events. Together, she and John Erik have used their experiences at Salem State to marry art and science, carving out a life, and a niche, that is unique and fulfilling.

Married in 2013, their contributions to the brewery venture in Lynn, notorious for its piratical past and its one-of-a-kind water, have resulted in a product that cannot be replicated, and is putting Bent Water Brewing Co. on the map as a New England destination.

 

Lynn Embick ’11G earned a master’s degree in English at Salem State University. She teaches fifth grade at the Witchcraft Heights Elementary School in Salem.

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Kimberly Burnett
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