Brewing beer is a kind of alchemy that's part science and art, part math and magic. For Les Locke, the head brewmaster for Southerleigh Fine Foods & Brewery, beer has become a way of life — one he could have lost after a cancer diagnosis. But his passion for beer and his work at Southerleigh are part of what helped him overcome this life-altering hurdle.
Locke discovered craft beer while stationed in Hawaii as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. A bottle of Chimay Red, a Belgian ale, opened his eyes to the possibilities of what beer could be.
"Someone handed me that Chimay, followed by a Stone IPA and then a Boston Lager," he said. "I kind of saw a wide scope of not necessarily craft beer but definitely more than what we typically associate with 'commercial beer.'"
He threw himself into brewing, even while earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in Oregon. While there, the legendary craft beer scene led him to even more possibilities. His part-time hobby evolved into a full-blown obsession. He volunteered at a brewpub in Oregon and was hired on after several months.
"There isn't anything about brewing that I haven't thrown myself into, from yeast management to grist ratios. All the science and math behind it, I've really honed that," Locke said.
Being able to coax flavors from unique recipes and still be able to apply the science, these are the facets of brewing that truly drive him.
"I really enjoy the community and the art behind brewing," he said. "It altogether drew me in and made me walk away from being an economist. It's science and chemistry along with art."
After moving back to San Antonio in 2005, Locke hooked up with Branchline Brewing Co. and was there for the start of its operation before he was brought on by owner and head chef Jeff Balfour to be the brains behind the brew at Southerleigh.
"Ultimately, my goal is to keep working with the kitchen and keep finding ways to bring the food, the herbs and vegetables, into our product," Locke said. "We try to find ways to turn beer styles on their heads. We aren't trying to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, just make some really good beer."
Sometimes, though, goals are derailed, at least momentarily, by an unexpected circumstance. Locke was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer in early 2015. At first, he was completely shocked by the diagnosis and had difficulty accepting what was happening to him; he struggled with saying the word "cancer" aloud while he was undergoing treatment. He kept his diagnosis private for quite a while before telling close friends and co-workers.
"I was in treatment for about six months undergoing colonoscopies, lab work and the usual medical treatments for it," Locke said. "It didn't really affect my work in the first four months or so. I maybe missed three or four days. Toward the end, my dosage got higher and around the last six weeks I was in bed for about 10 days. I was lucky to have a really great assistant brewmaster and to have the support of everyone around me."
For Locke, going through the mental aspects of the treatment was still a daunting experience. In the last few months, those were, admittedly, his scariest moments.
"The medicine was one thing, but the mental part of it all, that really played with my head," he said. "I'm good now. I've got to go in for more 'scopes' a couple times a year and really be more conscious of my health. That's partly why I wanted to have this event and more events going forward. I want people to be more aware of their health."
Driven by his own experience, he wanted to encourage others to take a greater interest in health awareness.
"After finishing up my medication and treatments, I wanted to do something to celebrate," he said. "I called up my friends at Freetail and told them, I want to do something more, eventually, but for now this would be something I could do immediately and make an impact. I wanted to have a get together and not make it totally about me."
The event, held January 24, at the Freetail Brewing Co. tasting room served as a fundraiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as a celebration of life and what he almost lost. More than 10 local breweries took part in the beer gathering.
"My cancer definitely changed my outlook. It's kind of cliché, but it really gave me a new appreciation for life. The biggest thing it made me realize was how lucky I was to be able to have access to quality healthcare through the [U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs]. That's not something everyone in our industry has," Locke said.
After what has been a long journey, Locke believes he has firmly entrenched himself in the world he belongs. He is a brewer now and forever.
"Beer is very palate driven. I might find inspiration in food or in the environment I'm in. There will always be something that challenges me," Locke said.