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Beer 101: College chemistry course on 'The Chemistry of Beer'

Two separate batches of beer near completion in a College of St. Scholastica chemistry lab. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
College of St. Scholastica student Nate Dykes uses a hydrometer to determine the specific gravity of a batch of Irish red ale he and several classmates brewed recently in a chemistry class. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
College of St. Scholastica student Derek Sutliffe fills a bottle with Irish red ale he and several classmates brewed in a chemistry class. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Nate Dykes (left) and Derek Sutliffe sample an Irish red ale they brewed in a chemistry class at the College of St. Scholastica. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

A 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing, contains the oldest known recipe for beer made from barley.

Seventh-century monks sold beer from their monasteries. Ben Franklin loved it. Delta House gave it to their pledges. Barack Obama brewed it inside the White House.

Yet despite its illustrious and long history, this is apparently the first semester that beer has ever been the subject of an academic course offering at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

No surprise here, "The Chemistry of Beer'' filled 10 minutes after registration opened. And this week the 24 students in Professor Aileen Beard's class bottled the fruits of their semester efforts, the fruit of the fermentation of hops and grain.

"I'm a chemistry major. It's kind of hard not to take this course," said senior Nate Dykes as he helped prepare bottles to be filled with his group's batch of beer.

In this case it was an Irish red ale. Other groups in the class brewed a java stout infused with coffee, a smooth nut-brown ale, a Belgian IPA, a honey amber IPA and a blonde ale.

Junior Peter Megariotis, a pre-med major, did the capping after junior Derek Sutliffe, marketing, helped senior biology major Maria Trescony fill each bottle to just the right level.

It's a chemistry course to be sure. The process of fermentation is all about chemical reactions between sugars and yeasts and temperature. But the course was open to non-science majors as well in an effort to appeal to those who might learn some chemistry while brewing up a good time.

"There's a lot of chemistry going on at every step. It's way more interesting process than wine," Beard said. "It's fun to brew. And it's fun to taste it when you're done."

Each student will walk away from the course not just with more knowledge of real-life chemistry but also with a six-pack of their hand-crafted beer.

No worries, all students were carded before they could take the course.

"It's is an upper-division elective. We do taste what we make, so everyone is 21, seniors mostly and some juniors," Beard said.

Beard, who also is the college's Dean of the School of Science and an avid home brewer, turned little-used Biology Lab 2141 in the CSS Science Center into her "brewing room" for the course.

"The college has been totally supportive," said Beard, who had previously taught the course at a college in Kansas before coming to Duluth four years ago.

The beer bottled this week will sit for about two weeks at room temperature while a little sugar added in the final brewing stage "adds a little jolt" to the fermentation, Dykes noted, giving the beer its proper amount of carbonation and a nice foamy head on the pour.

Rhiannon Waletzko, a senior nursing major, said she signed up for the course because beer has always been a subject of interest for her.

"My whole family likes beer, likes to try different beers and talk about them, so why not?" she said. But she's not planning to save any of her six-pack from the course for home. "I'll talk about it with them. But they aren't getting any."

The entire class will come together just before school lets out for summer for a final lab. Everyone in the class is expected to attend.

"It's when everyone gets to taste everyone else's beer,'' Beard said. "We tried to make it later in the afternoon so it's the last class they have that day."

But there's also a final exam. Honest.

"It's a real test. There's an essay question and everything," Beard said. "This is still a chemistry class after all."

The chemistry of skunky beer

Each student in Professor Aileen Beard's "The Chemistry of Beer" class at the College of St. Scholastica had to taste-test a sip of sun-skunked warm beer before they talked about what exactly went chemically wrong.

According to the website professorbeer.com (not related to Beard) the hop compounds that are responsible for making beer bitter and giving it its flavor are called isomerized alpha-acids. When light hits beer it provides the energy creating a reaction that transforms the iso-alpha-acids into 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol. The "thiol" part of that indicates sulfur has appeared. And sulfur has that strong, skunk-like aroma.

Thus sunlight, all light really, is the enemy of beer. And that's why beer is usually packaged in cans or brown bottles, Beard noted.

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