Joseph L. Owades, who developed the first low-calorie beer and later helped launch a number of the leading microbreweries that produce custom beers on a smaller scale, died Friday at his home in Sonoma, Calif. He was 86.
He had suffered a stroke several years ago but the immediate cause of death was heart failure, his wife, Ruth, said. He had been a resident of San Francisco and Sonoma for many years.
Owades, who received a doctorate in biochemistry in 1950, was known as Dr. Owades by colleagues. He brought his expertise as a research scientist to the work of brewing beer.
“Joe Owades revolutionized the American beer business,” said Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., who hired Owades as a consultant in the 1980s when Koch started brewing Samuel Adams lager.
“Joe helped bring back quality control and brewing techniques for smaller breweries,” said Koch, a sixth-generation brewmaster. “He was a brilliant scientist.”
Owades worked with a number of other small breweries, including Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif. He was a mentor as much as a consultant to brewers, Koch said.
“Joe was patient and understanding, but he always knew he was right,” he said.
Owades developed his first formulas for beers in the 1950s when he worked for Rheingold Breweries in Brooklyn, N.Y. He created a so-called diet beer by isolating an enzyme that could break down starches, allowing the yeast in beer to digest the starch and therefore lower the number of calories. Rheingold introduced the low-calorie beer in 1967 under the Gablinger’s label, but it didn’t catch on.
Miller Brewing Co. acquired the rights to the process Owades invented and launched Miller Lite in 1975, a major step toward moving low-calorie beers into the mainstream. The beer was marketed with the familiar “tastes great, less filling” jingle.
Owades left Rheingold in 1969 to become technical coordinator for Anheuser-Busch Cos. in St. Louis. From there he went to Carling Brewery in Boston in 1972 to work as vice president of brewing. Three years later he opened a consulting firm, Center for Brewing Studies, in Sonoma, where he also taught annual seminars in the art and science of brewing.
Throughout his career, Owades wrote and presented more than 40 research papers about beer, illuminating several of beer’s compounds and advancing techniques of brewing.
“Some of his papers were groundbreaking, others were good solid work,” said Jaime Jurado, president of the Master Brewers Assn. of the Americas, based in St. Paul, Minn. Owades was a longtime member of the association.
Born in New York City and raised in the Bronx, Owades graduated from City College of New York and received a master’s degree and a doctorate from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.
He got his first job as a research chemist for Fleischmann’s Yeast in 1948 and remained with the company for three years before going to work for Rheingold.
He married his first wife, Phyllis, in the late 1940s. The couple had two sons, Stephen and William, before their marriage ended in divorce in the 1960s.
He is survived by his second wife, Ruth; his sons; and a brother, Henry.
Contributions can be made in Owades’ name to the Neurocritical Care and Stroke Division, c/o UC San Francisco Foundation, P.O. Box 0248, San Francisco, CA 94143.