It’s not about the type of beer that fills your glass; it’s all about the process. Just ask Steve Padilla.
Owner of Big River Brewery in Pharr and alumnus of UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American, Padilla says that whether you prefer stouts, lagers or seasonal sours, his authentic Valley brews came from ideas fermented in the science classroom.
Padilla got a degree in nursing in 2008. As a nurse and anesthetist, he now spends about 45 hours a week working at a hospital. He commits another 30 to 40 hours a week brewing beer for his business.
The process of making beer is actually a lot more scientific than many people think, he said. So, using his background in nursing and his experience within various science fields, Padilla tests all the equipment in his brewery with medical precision.
“There’s a lot of chemistry, a lot of physics, a lot of microbiology,” he said. “So it takes what I learned during my studies, not just as an undergraduate in nursing but as a graduate student, as well, and it combines the science and also the art of creating a beer.”
Microbiology – the study of all living organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye – is one of Padilla’s favorite sciences and plays a huge part in the creation of his brews.
“All the ingredients that you use to make a beer is part of an equation,” he said. “For example, the grain has extract potential in the sugars you can draw from a particular type of malt. You take that number and you put it into an equation. Then you come up with the amount of what you need to create a grain bill for a certain type of beer.”
Sterilization is another implementation learned from years of medical and science study and a crucial aspect practiced in his career. It also plays a huge part in keeping the brewery clean and running.
“I’m a medical healthcare professional, so I never thought I would be doing something like this,” Padilla said. “But I’m fortunate to have been able to take what I’ve learned from my studies and my job into this passion.”
It was that initial passion for home brewing which helped turn the establishment into a now thriving brewery. The help of his wife and business partner, Bertha Padilla, is also crucial. The brewery now distributes throughout several local restaurants and bars. Padilla also recently landed a partnership with H-E-B for distribution.
Balancing two jobs can be overwhelming, says Padilla, and he relies on his wife – also a UTRGV legacy nursing alum. She runs the taproom and accounts while he brews the beer.
“I’m a people person, so I really enjoy meeting people and being out in the community,” she said. “I like for people to come here and have a good time. This is a very relaxing place to visit.”
The recipes for crafting each beer are the creations of Padilla himself. The secret to a good brew lies within the process – as complex as it may be, he said.
One of the first beers he created, and now his best seller, is Cha Cha Blonde. The classic golden brew with a light, crisp taste keeps the patrons coming back for more.
“You can drink this beer with anything,” Padilla said, listing a few of the restaurants and bars throughout the Valley that carry it. His goal was to create a light beer that patrons could drink a few of. Even those who weren’t turned on to craft beer.
Padilla uses elements from the Valley to create authentic brews. Cha Cha Blonde’s name, for example, comes from Padilla’s mother-in-law, known for her flaxen blonde hair. And Sal del Rey, an amber ale, is inspired by the iconic salt deposit La Sal del Rey near Linn north of Edinburg.
Being able to incorporate cultural pieces of the Valley, his own creative interests and educational passions has helped fuel Padilla to keep the brewery going.
“I’m so passionate about education and learning and science that this seems to be a natural fit. It’s very important for me as a UTPA alumni to open up locally owned businesses here in the Valley to represent us – our culture, our heritage – what we’re all about,” he said.