Beer class: week eleven

Student presentations

This was the best beer class yet!

We’re winding down the semester now. (I’ll be catching up on intervening weeks ASAP, but want to get this post out while it’s fresh on my mind.) Mcouat is through with his lectures--- we have a final guest lecture next week--- and now it’s time for the students to show off their work.

As a slacker newspaper editor, I avoid real work as much as possible. So through the course of this class I’ve done my best to look bushy eyed alert and nodded at all the right times so it appeared I knew what the hell was going on, and I’ve read a little bit of the course reader here and there so I’m not completely out of the loop, but I’ve left the heavy lifting to the real students. They’re the ones who stay after the lectures for the grad student-led tutorials, takes the tests, write the papers and do the projects. Me, I sat all that out and wrote snarky blog posts instead.

The papers and projects were open-ended, evidently. In not so many words, Mcouat gave the following instructions: Just write something about brewing, technology and civilization, and maybe do some whacky experiment to bring it all together. Whatever you want.

The students took the ball and ran with it. And today’s class was dedicated to allowing them to show off.

As if to underscore just how lazily lame I am, first up was the fellow from the Noble Grape, who also is auditing the class. (Noble Grape kindly donated time and resources to the class, gave the students discounts on supplies.) He had set out to recreate the kind of porter that was brewed by the industrial “common brewers” of Britain, circa 1800.

This was harder than it sounds. First, he had to try to recreate the water of England of that period, which evidently involved a lot of research into heavy metals and such. He mimicked the English salts and, well, did a bunch of other things I didn’t understand, just to get the water to be something like it would’ve been back in the day.

Turns out that the English porter was different than how we think of porter today—it wasn’t black, but rather red or brown. “We had to figure out how to brew a beer that doesn’t exist anymore,” he explained.

Researching some more, he found what he thought was probably the closest variety of hops to the earlier hops, and even a strain of yeast that dated back to the day. Reading through the old brewing manuals, he calculated the specific gravities and other brewer techniques.

“I think we have something that’s pretty close to a traditional 1820s porter,” he said. “We’ll crack it open next week.”

Next up was a fellow who is investigating what happened to indigenous beer making around the world when English colonialism came knocking with its industrial beer.

As I discussed way back in Week One, pretty much every society that invented agriculture also invented some sort of boozing, leading us to speculate that the latter is responsible for the former. Our student took a look at African sorghum beer, which is made from sorghum and millet. “It’s gluten free,” he pointed out.

As we discussed the issue, he let on that he wasn’t making great progress with his thesis, but he had discovered that when the African nations finally gained their post-colonial independence in the 20th century, one of the first things they did was close down the beer halls. He speculated that they saw the beer halls as a conduit for the kind of tied-house monopolies that existed back in England, and that the new nations hoped to revive the traditional brewing economies, which “compared to the traditional ale wives in Europe,” he said (see Week six).

The project that went along with his paper was to actually brew some of the stuff. He had malted some sorghum himself, and brought some plantains to explain the entire process, which, ahem, I didn’t understand. He said it’d take a few more months for the stuff to come to fruition.

He’s catalogued the process on a blog, found at:

Then came a guy who complained that Pasteur’s innovations amounted to “the ethnic cleansing of beer.” As he explained it, thanks to the Frenchman (honest, this will be in Week nine), industrial beer making has gotten rid of all but one strain of yeast.

He investigated the Danish Lambic brewers, who had resisted the Pasteurized processes and continued to brew beer in open containers, capturing wild yeast from the air.

“They’d pour it in giant trays on the roofs of the brewery over night… it’s fantastic,” he said.

He made two batches of beer. In one, he used a closed brewing system that used imported yeasts that he thought were closest to the Dutch variety. In a second, he hopes to use an open brewing process that will capture wild yeasts here in Nova Scotia. This is dependant on warmer weather, when the yeast begin to come back to life, so will also take a few more months.

Our fourth presenters were students Jed and Claire, who have attempted to recreate the chicha beer of pre-Columbian Peru. This was a traditional corn beer that had been made for centuries. “By the 15th century , they were making 500 litre batches,” explained Jed.

Looking around for some corn to use, Jed and Claire decided that the closest thing that resembles pre-Columbian corn is probably popcorn. So they bought a bunch of organic popcorn and sprouted it for their malt, then ground it.

They explained the process in great detail--- you can read about it yourself at their blog:

They made some pretty interesting discoveries along the way, not the least of which was that the Europeans who wrote all this down in the 16th century didn’t have a clue about what the Peruvians were actually doing.

A case in point: the Europeans explained that the Peruvians brought their mash to a slow boil. “That didn’t make any sense,” said Jed. “It would kill off the yeast. Then it occurred to me--- they were doing this up in the Andes, where the low pressure resulted in a lower boiling point. So I dialled the temperature down.”

That’s one of those ah-ha! points that must make an instructor proud.

Anyway, the pair brought tow different batches to class, and we passed the jugs around, swigging away. “This tastes like the chicha I had in El Salvador,” said one student.

The stuff had a bite, and I’d think it’d take some getting used to the weird bacteria that was swimming around the stuff, but after the initial bang, I found it pleasant enough.

The fifth presenter was a student who has been investigating the traditional spruce beers that were brewed in New England, Quebec and Nova Scotia through the 16th and 17th centuries.

Basically, they used molasses, boilled it down with spruce and through in whatever wild hops they could find.

She too was hoping to use open fermentation for her product.

This was all great stuff, truly, and I’m proud of my fellow students for the work they’ve put into this.

But we weren’t done yet. After the presentations, we all trekked over to Propeller Brewery for a tour.

We were met by Matthew, an employee, who made sure we all had a full glass and then brought us down in the basement. They were gigantic vats here and there, a grinding machine for the hops, some, er, well, I don’t know what all. There were really too many of us for us all to follow the tour, so I generally let the students get closer to Matthew.

But a small number of students cornered Bobby, the brewmaster, and pestered him with questions. “Do any of you homebrew?” Bobby asked. “About half of us,” said one student, who went on to ask about some technical detail or another.

Another student seemed to be leading his own tour of the place, and the whole scene was wonderfully anarchic, as we juggled beers while stepping over hoses and around vats and cheering on the bottling machine.

Somehow or another I survived the night. And now I’m looking forward to the student party, which is next week. Of course I’ll blog it…

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