Brewing beer is a science for Alex McDonald, whose workspace on North Shepherd Drive is more like a spacious, space-themed laboratory.
The 35-year-old New Jersey native is a lifelong academic who has studied physics, chemistry and biology. He earned a PhD from the University of California Santa Cruz and did post-doctorate work at Boston University Medical Center, studying the genes that cause mad cow disease at both stops.
Now McDonald specializes in substances that affect the cognitive function of humans. He’s the brewmaster for Astral Brewing, which is slated to open its taproom March 2 at 4618 N. Shepherd Dr. Suite A.
McDonald makes measurements, conducts experiments and solves problems using test tube-like vials to examine his carbonated creations and then modify them. The goal is to concoct a libation that meets all the desired criteria in terms of color, scent and taste.
“Brewing is basically applied biochemistry,” he said. “This is sort of like macroscopic biochemistry, whereas what I was doing before was microscopic biochemistry.”
McDonald was lured to Houston by Astral Brewing co-owner Jose Ceja, a 37-year-old criminal defense attorney who came to the Space City in 2010. They became friends through a fellow beer enthusiast named Eric Evans, who grew up with Ceja in Tucson, Arizona, and later studied with McDonald in California.
Ceja and McDonald agreed to become beer-making partners late in 2016 and purchased the warehouse on North Shepherd late in 2017. When McDonald moved to Houston in May, he quickly transformed from scientist to general contractor and oversaw the redevelopment of the space.
Now Astral Brewing is ready for liftoff, with a plan to offer four beers at the onset. The yet-to-be-named brews will be a New England-style hazy pale ale, a West Coast IPA, a kolsch and a stout.
Ceja and McDonald said they want to master those styles first before incorporating mixed fermentation and brewing other types such as sour beers and lagers.
“This won’t happen on day one, but it’s our hope that a diversity of styles and hopefully the mastery of a variety of styles will set us apart one day,” Ceja said.
The pair of Texas transplants settled on Houston because they consider it a mostly untapped market for craft beer, although the Heights, Garden Oaks and Oak Forest area features nine other craft breweries. Ceja said he considers it an “up-and-coming” part of the city.
The name Astral, which means “of the stars,” fits Houston’s reputation as a hub of aerospace engineering. Ceja and McDonald enlisted local graphic designer Rob Waters to create their red, black and blue logo, which features an astronaut standing on the moon and kicking a beer can into space.
“We wanted something that was a little bit playful,” Ceja said. “The beers will have maybe vaguely space-reference names, but not too heavy-headed.”
Making beer and running a taproom isn’t rocket science. But in McDonald’s case, it’s not too far off.
He applies the scientific method to his brewing and the brewery business, saying he learned how to manage the construction of the building by treating tasks such as plumbing, wiring and concrete-pouring as a series of problems that needed to be solved. McDonald’s scientific versatility also has served him well during his career transition.
“I majored in physics, did my PhD in chemistry and post-doc in biology – but drinking beer the whole time,” he said. “That’s a constant.”