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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Dana Garves

This bench chemist built her own business around the craft beer boom

by Craig Bettenhausen
February 27, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 10


An interest in chemistry


Dana Garves started pursuing science in secret. She joined her high school’s Science Olympiad team without telling her parents. Then one day, she needed help with an event. “I had to blindside my mom: ‘Hey, so, I’m in the Science Olympiad. And I’m also the president. And also, can you chaperone?’ ” Garves wasn’t embarrassed, but science wasn’t a big part of her family’s daily lives before that. Her mother worked in video game testing, and her father was a mechanic for Boeing. “My parents are my biggest supporters, and I would not be where I am today without them,” she says. Chemistry was one of the subjects she struggled with the most in high school, but she found the “Aha!” moments addictive and the interactions of subatomic particles “poetic and beautiful.” Garves majored in chemistry at the University of Oregon. “I loved the analytical side; I love being in the lab,” she says. “I’ve always loved being on a bench working with my hands.”

Industry experience


A photo of a college student in an analytical lab.
Credit: Michelle Leis Foley
Garves found a love for bench work early in her college days.

As an undergrad, Garves did research on how green chemistry principles can be used in the classroom, with an eye toward a career in teaching. But she soon found that “the teachers I liked the most in college all had industry experience.” So after graduation, she landed a job with a water quality testing lab in Oregon. “I was bored to tears,” she says. But the experience gave her an appreciation for quality control. “I fell in love with the rigidness of it.” She knew she liked QC and liked chemistry, but how could she make it interesting?

A move to the beer world


A woman holds a round capsule in the desert. Her shirt says "Ninkasi."
Credit: Lisa McAuliffe
In 2014, Garves and Ninkasi sent brewer's yeast into space to see if it survived cosmic radiation. It did. Here she is shown en route to the launch site.

Searching Craigslist, Garves found an unattributed opening in the QC lab of a beer brewery. She applied through the listing and also researched every brewery in the area until she found one, Ninkasi Brewing, with a matching opening advertised. She sent her materials to the company directly, then “went in person and pestered them until they gave me an interview,” she says. Garves got the job and spent four years building Ninkasi’s chemistry and sensory labs. She also got to work on exciting side projects, such as when the firm sent yeast into orbit and found it could survive the rigors of space travel. Around 2012, other nearby breweries starting asking for her help. Soon, requests for analysis favors started arriving by mail, and brewers from across the country would visit with samples in need of testing.

Brewing entrepreneur


A woman in a lab coat regards a glass of beer.
Credit: Kiley Gwynn
Garves now also offers workshops on sensory analysis. "I teach people how to give useful feedback to a brewer."

Garves saw an opportunity in beer analysis. In 2014, the going rate for an alcohol percent (alcohol by volume, or ABV) test at contract labs was around $200, and results took between five days and two weeks to arrive. “That’s too long,” she says. “That beer is already in pint glasses.” She calculated she could do it much faster and for just $20. So that same year, she left Ninkasi, cashed out her 401(k) to raise capital, and started Oregon BrewLab in her garage. “It was very scary. Working for a larger brewery is a pretty cushy job,” Garves says. “I had to adjust to buying beer again, for one thing.” At the end of the first year, she had just 50 clients and had to bartend and work odd jobs to make ends meet. Four years in, she has more than 200 clients and says she may hire help. But any assistant will be in the office; she wants to do the bench work herself.

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