Proposing a beer-making class on a college campus – particularly one located in a dry county of Arkansas – sounds like the kind of wink-wink joke that writes itself. But that’s exactly what one faculty member did at private Lyon College in Batesville, home of the Scots, in order to teach students the science of fermentation.
And he’s dead serious about it, too, even though the irony of such a class in dry Independence County isn’t lost on him.
“This is absolutely, 100 percent, not drinking beer for credit,” said Sandy Beeser, assistant professor of biology. “I’ve given campus tours when people see the brew room; people started calling me the Beer Guy and I’m OK with that. I just don’t want people to think this is drinking beer for credit, because that’s just 100 percent not true.”
Rather, said Beeser, he was looking for a fresh way for students to meet the school’s biology requirement.
“A lot of students take classes and think, ‘Why do I need to take biology? I’m a business major,’” he said. “A lot of non-scientists view general biology classes as simply memorization of a lot of facts and there’s a lot of evidence that shows that if you can get people interested in the process and make it more relatable, they’ll retain a lot more.”
“That’s pretty much why I wanted to do this. Essentially what I’m trying to do is trick people into understanding science without saying it’s a science course.”
After kicking around the idea for a while, the Canadian-born-and-raised Beeser took the opportunity of Lyon getting a new provost to pitch his idea, complete with describing his credentials in the art of brewing beer.
“When I was in grad school, I picked up home brewing simply because of access,” he said. “I had access to things that other home brewers wouldn’t, because I had access to a modern yeast molecular biology lab. I do have an affinity for beer, it’s my drink of choice, but the course had nothing to do with me home brewing, it was an attempt for me to increase STEM on campus.”
“When Lyon got a new provost I’d thought about teaching this class for a while, so it seemed like a good time to propose it. I didn’t know if they would say yes or no but they’ve been very, very supportive.”
The 100-level class debuted in the 2020 spring semester, but before you could say “Probst!” COVID-19 had shut it and the rest of the Lyon campus down, shifting all classes to virtual learning. It was not the start the Quebec native was hoping for.
“That class had no associated lab with it, it was only lecture,” Beeser said. “So, we had to mash a bunch of lab time into lecture time which we didn’t have a lot of time to do. Plus, when we went to 100 percent virtual, it’s kind of hard to create labs on such short notice that are virtual.”
By 2021, the administration decided to resume in-person classes and Beeser had his own dedicated lab in which to conduct the 12-week, 4-credit class.
“I can make 10-gallon batches, that’s about a third of a barrel, but we largely make beer on much smaller scales,” he said. “I also have a beer robot that makes two gallons of beer. It’s like a Keurig; we put in the grain, hit go and come back in two hours and add yeast. A week later we have beer.”
Although beer only has four foundational components – barley, hops, yeast and water – Beeser demonstrates to students how those four can be manipulated during the brewing process to create an almost infinite number of variants.
“We’ll start downstairs and do triangle tests; they’ll have three glasses in front of them, two are the same, one is different,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they like the beers, the question is can you tell which one is different. We’ve done other tests not just using beer, but soaking hops in hot water to extract the acids to see if one hop is more fruity or piney.”
“We also do tests of commercial beers. One thing we did last week was get a bunch of commercial beers, students blind-tasted the beer and we asked them to rank them by most to least bitter. Then, we extracted the alpha acids to determine how many IBUs there were and saw if their tastings lined up with the findings.”
Once again, Beeser stressed the class was not cover for a kegger; beakers are provided for students to spit out their tasting, much like at a winery, and all students are required to be 21 by the first day of class.
“If you just wanted to drink, there are a million easier ways to do it than taking this class,” he said.
Student numbers are modest, but in time, Beeser hopes the class grows into a popular option for non-science types who can bring unique perspectives to the subject matter.
“I would love for [the class] to be a magnet to bring in students,” he said. “I’m hoping once students start talking about this class, we’ll bring in other majors. If there were business students who wanted to learn an aspect of craft brewing or art students learning to make labels, that would be great. I think the more people that view this as an opportunity to participate in science in a relatable way, the better it would be. I would love for more people to take it.”
“I teach some rather difficult academic classes, this isn’t that. It gives me the opportunity not to hammer in a bunch of facts for students wanting to go to medical school. And if this class allows any of the students to make a better, more rational decision as to their relationship to alcohol, then that’s great, too.”