When parents send their kids away to college, they want them to get a good, well-rounded education. At Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., this includes a basic knowledge of homebrewing and the Principles of Papazian.
As a college senior, Chris Asher organized and taught Homebrew 101 to 10 determined students.
The students learned the basics of homebrewing and brewed four batches of beer. They got full credit for the course, too, even though it was held in Asher’s kitchen. “We wanted a classroom, but I think (the administration) thought we’d make too big a mess,” Asher notes.
When Asher was a freshman, a roommate taught him how to brew. He brewed in dorm rooms and apartments for the next three years. He answered so many questions about his hobby from the curious over the years that he felt certain there was enough interest around campus to fill a class. And he wanted to teach it.
“At first there were about 25 people who wanted to be in the class, but there wasn’t room for that many in my kitchen. So I kind of put them off, and the people who really hounded me got to be in the class,” Asher admits.
While the enrollment process may hae been a bit unusual, the school had some more stringent requirements that had to be met.
Asher was required to turn in a syllabus and lesson plans before the class started. He was assigned a faculty adviser, chemistry professor Albert Fry, to help him through the process.
Asher and Fry established a curriculum that divided the semester into four sections, focusing on four batches. The first and second batches were recipes that Asher assigned. They were simple extract brews with easy measurements that would introduce the new brewers to the basics such as fermentation and sanitation.
The third assignment was to produce a special recipe by modifying one from their textbook. “I would help if they asked, but I tried to get students to work it out on their own,” he says. The fourth and final batch was a recipe of student’s choosing.
Required course material for each student was a kit that included all the necessary equipment (minus a brewpot) for $40, The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian ($10), and $60 for the ingredients to make four batches. Asher was able to buy all the ingredients in bulk to keep the cost down.
The students paired up to share brewpots and brewing sessions. Throughout the semester each team kept brewing notebooks, which were turned in to the professor at the end of the course. These included class notes, recipes, and brewing notes from the four batches. They also turned in a five-page paper about brewing and calculated the International Bitterness Units, alcohol content, and specific gravity of their final batch.
Someone’s In the Kitchen
Asher’s kitchen classes were a mixture of lessons and demonstration combined with assigned reading. “With the demonstrations I wanted to inform people about stuff that isn’t in the books, like turning the heat off before adding extract to avoid boilovers,” he says. He taught the class about mashing, as he is an all-grain brewer, but the students didn’t actually do a mash. Some days he discussed the reading, while other days were designated labs, such as the day he did a sparging demonstration.
The high points of the semester were the class trips. One was to the New Haven Brewing Co. for a beer tasting, and another was to the Farmington River Brewery. That trip included a full tour and history of the brewery. Asher enthuses, “It was great! Bill Hodkin, the brewmaster and owner, showed us all his equipment and told us the story behind each piece, how he traveled all over the country to find it. He showed us how it all worked, and we learned a lot.”
One of the unexpected side effects of the class was the creativity it generated. Some students went out of their way to find unusual fruits and flavors to use with their beer, such as Dan Schaefer’s “Black Star Ale,” which used star fruit. When Tori Peglar and Sarah Huard needed bottles to put their homework in, they held a “Bring a Full and Leave an Empty” champagne party at their house.
In assigning recipes to students, Asher used a basic formulation and changed some of the amounts and ingredients for each brewing pair. “I tried to make it a controlled experiment, varying the things like crystal malt and hops so the students could see the differences it made in the beers. It worked well. At the tastings they were able to identify all sorts of different flavors — ones that should be there and ones that shouldn’t.”
Group tastings where everyone analyzed the beer according to the differences in the recipe gave way to the end-of-semester tasting, which took the form of a contest featuring the students’ final projects as the entries.
A Dream Final
“We started out with a 10-point scale, but the more we tasted the less we paid attention to it,” Asher admitted. Everyone had a great time tasting their classmates’ brews.
One popular brew was Peglar and Huard’s Dingleberry Ale. “We weren’t sure if it was going to get contaminated when we added the raspberries four days into the fermentation process, but everything went smoothly,” said Peglar. “It turned out to be one of the more popular brews at the tasting, which was pretty exciting for us beginning brewers.”
The Mocha Java Porter took high honors as the unofficial winner at the tasting with kudos also going to the instructor’s own “Strawberry Swheat” and Jamie Chesler and Greg Penderson’s “Sow Your Wild Oats Stout.”
Eventually on the day of the contest, the class threw open the doors and made it a campus-wide homebrew bash. Everyone had their fill of beer, and there was still some left over.
The bash went a long way toward generating interest in the class, which may be held again next year. Bill Hodkin of the Farmington River Brewery expressed interest in teaching it, since Asher has graduated.
Hodkin, a graduate of the University of California, Davis, Brewing Science program, was excited about the class and its potential value. He thought the students were getting an excellent introduction to brewing and the science principles involved. “They are some of the best-educated brewers I’ve met,” he said.
Even though many on campus thought the class was a classic example of a senior gut course, the students defended its importance. “It isn’t vigorously academic, but it is something that is useful, which is rare,” said senior Eve Crowell, whose signature was “Eve’s Evil Ale,” a pale ale.
As many homebrewers can attest, brewing takes concentration, planning, and patience, and while it may not be pre-med, there is plenty to learn.