Universities toast to classier beer drinking

by Beacon Staff • December 3, 2008

Nowadays, students across the country may actually be clinking glasses, or plastic blue cups, for reasons other than partaking in another mind-numbing "Thirsty Thursday." Rather, health indicators, the desire to win a science competition or the need to perfect a class project may be enabling their pursuit to get 'crunk.',Beer. College. Forever united, like chips and salsa, Sodom and Gomorrah, PB and R.

Nowadays, students across the country may actually be clinking glasses, or plastic blue cups, for reasons other than partaking in another mind-numbing "Thirsty Thursday." Rather, health indicators, the desire to win a science competition or the need to perfect a class project may be enabling their pursuit to get 'crunk.'

Recently, there's been a wave, of colleges offering courses in the contemporary and practical art of brewing beer.

Ten students at the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus will have the opportunity to embrace beer this spring, through the Department of Bacteriology's course taught by Dr. Jon Roll.

Though the students will be permitted to taste their brewed batches, the complexities of the class itself are not only about the making and consuming of beer, but also about the fermentation and science behind it.

In an interview with iThe Beacon/i, Roll said the course came about when a cutting edge, state-of-the-art science facility was built at the university and MillerCoors donated $100,000 of pilot equipment that can make ten gallons of beer at a time.

He insisted the school's offering of the course had no connection to its number six ranking in beer consumption by the 2008 Princeton Review or the state's 55 percent binge drinking rate, which is the highest in the country.

"The brewing industry in Wisconsin is a $7 billion industry, and ignoring that would be na've," Roll said.

He made it adamantly clear that this was not a course for the ordinary college boozie.

"Prerequisites for the course are Introduction to Microbiology and Organic Chemistry. It's a 300 level course," he said. "It's by no means a 100 level course for the student who just wants to learn home brewing."

The process the students go through when making their improvised brews is designed to stand up to most scientific methods.

"We're going to go through four batches. We'll be sampling, going through several of the calculations, which are surprisingly complicated," Roll said. "We'll be monitoring the growth of the yeast. We'll look at the chemistry of water. Experts will come in from perhaps Coors to talk about flavor and pairing [beers] with foods."

Although the University of Wisconsin has no brewing major, the course will be offered as a special topic elective to undergraduate microbiology majors. In addition to their general education and major required courses, all microbiology majors at the college are required to take two electives, one of which could be this course in beer brewing.

Roll said he expects the program at the Madison campus to grow.

"The interest in the class has been phenomenal," he said. "The reason for that has been because the industry for beer in the state is so historic."

While the University of Wisconsin remains one of the first major schools in the country to offer a course of this capacity and content, there are others out there.

Closer to home, Bentley College, in Waltham, has an MBA course with similar connotations. In cooperation with the Boston Beer Company, the school created MG755: Special Topics: The Organizational Life Cycle-The Boston Beer Company Brewers of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. With more of an entrepreneurial and innovative teaching purpose, the graduate course looks at the company's development through the last 20 years.

Already in place at University of California's Davis campus is a well-recognized brewing program for malted beverages. Offered through their Food Science Department is an Introduction to Brewing and Beer course, which satisfies a General Education requirement. The school offers an additional Masters Brewing Program, as well as degree programs in oenology-the study of wine.

The University of Kings College in Canada also offers a program in the brewing of beer.

"As one of the class assignments, I gave the students the option to brew their own beer from one of these manuals and write a detailed historical research essay on their experiment and its context," said Professor Gordon McOuat in an e-mail to iThe Beacon/i.

At Kings College, it is not all work when it comes to making the frothy refreshments. There had to be some fun involved.

"At the end of the year we had a large party and tasted some of the projects," he said. "Many were simply amazing, including the meticulous recreation of a London Porter from the early nineteenth century, just as industrialization was beginning to take place. I've never tasted anything like it. However, I declined having a sip of the ancient Peruvian beer, which had the consistency of porridge and smelled like vomit."

The "You Know You Went to UC Davis If..." Facebook group may have made light of the college's program in brewing beer by listing "You've taken Intro to Beer Brewing, Wine Making, or Tractor Driving" in its description. Students at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, however, point to the push for scientific advancements as their root cause in messing with the art of fermenting.

They took this idea of "drinking for your health" and juxtaposed it with a societal necessity for beer.

A group of the college's undergraduate students employed genetic engineering to generate beer that contains resveratrol, a chemical in wine that is perceived to reduce cancer and heart disease in lab animals. They're using the anti-aging chemical to produce the health-encompassing "Bio-Beer."

Jonathon Silberg, assistant professor of biochemistry and cell biology and the team's faculty advisor that low levels of resveratrol are already found in hops, the raw ingredient of beer, he said to technologyreview.com.

"We're just trying to enhance something that's probably there at very low levels," Silberg said, "We're not trying to undermine wine's little niche in any way. It's a different market."

The project was an entry in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition-the world's largest synthetic biology competition. Held earlier this month-Nov. 8 and 9-in Cambridge, Rice students came home with a gold medal and second place in presentation, according to the iGEM Web site.

The director of iGEM, Randy Rettberg, was unavailable for comment. However, the requirements for a gold medal were detailed on the site, including conditions that demonstrate at least one of the project's parts works as expected.

This idea of brewing healthy beer actually came from a conversation after last year's iGEM competition.

"After last year's contest, we were sitting around talking about what we'd do this year," junior Taylor Stevenson told News and Media Relations at Rice University. "[Graduate student] Peter Nguyen made a joke about putting resveratrol into beer, but none of us took it seriously."

T

he team discarded the suggestion, believing it had yet to be proven as a health impact in humans. Last spring, however, the team discovered new elements of literature, with thorough methodologies of groups who had tackled both sectors of the metabolic problem separately. The team then decided that the project was worthwhile.

"Besides the fantastic work these students accomplished, they also shed light on a new industry, synthetic biology, with the public," Silberg said. "There are an increasing number of companies looking to synthetic biology for technologies that will help create a sustainable world, and the students who compete at iGEM represent the future leaders of this industry."

As luck would have it, most of the Rice students who participated in the iGEM competition aren't even old enough to legally drink beer.