The history of beer is full, frothy, and flavorful, and next semester, Hillsdale College students will get the chance to learn about it, with beer chemistry and home-brewing lessons mixed in.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Christopher Hamilton is teaching a spring course on beer: the history, the chemistry, and brewing process. The class is open first to students in the Collegiate Scholars program, and then to all Hillsdale students 21 years old who have taken General Chemistry I.
A home-brewer himself, Hamilton got the idea to teach a class on his hobby from a colleague. Associate Professor of Mathematics Thomas Treloar mentioned the idea for the class to Hamilton, who immediately took a liking to it. In the spring of 2014, Hamilton taught the class as a seminar for the former Honors Program.
Next spring, Hamilton will teach the class for the third time because, he said, “Beer is awesome. That’s the short answer.”
According to Hamilton, beer has a long history — about 5,000 years of it — and had a significant role in establishing the Western tradition.
“You could argue that without beer, we would not have Western civilization,” Hamilton said. “If people want to brew beer, you need to settle down and farm, so people settled down.”
According to Hamilton, beer brewing began as a necessity in early settlements because beer was safer to drink than water. Also, a key ingredient in beer, grain, grows almost anywhere, Hamilton said.
Brewing involves much more than beer history, however. Each class period is a full hour divided into roughly three 20-minute segments. The first part is a science topic, and the next part is learning about a style of beer related to the science topic. The last 20 minutes of class is devoted to sampling beer and filling out sensory evaluation sheets with data on aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel.
Although drinking a cold brew after a quick science lesson may seem ideal, Hamilton stresses that the class does require more work than critiquing beer.
“Yeah, it’s about beer. It’s going to be fun, but it’s also serious,” Hamilton said. “You have to do the work. You have to do projects. Every day in class you have to do evaluations. You are writing things out. Students have to write a paper on a science topic related to beer.”
Senior biochemistry major John Olberding took the class last spring because he loves beer and had done previous beer research with Hamilton. Even with his experience, though, the class was work.
“It’s not a trivial course. It’s a real course,” Olberding said.
Hamilton recommends students take General Chemistry I before signing up to ensure each person understands class lectures and discussion. He is willing to waive the requirement, however, if the student asks.
“We talk a lot about chemistry and so I want students to have a basic background knowledge. If a student had an Advanced Placement chem course or a significant background, I’m willing to talk to students who don’t have Chemistry 201,” Hamilton said. “You know, I’m not teaching the basics of chemistry, I’m teaching them about the science of beer, so they have to have those fundamental ideas and topics already down.”
Senior English major Tim Force is considering taking the class next semester even though he lacks the chemistry prerequisite. He will rely on what he has learned from past chemistry classes and watching his older brother brew beer.
Force is interested in the art of brewing partly because of a desire to use it to connect with others.
“I think these sort of hands-on tasks are great methods of evangelization and getting guys together,” Force said. “So I’m really interested in creating future men’s groups where the focal point is brewing and tasting beer, so I’d love to see how Dr. Hamilton approaches that same subject.”
Hamilton said he has 15 spots in his class and expects them all to be filled.
“I’m sad the class is limited to 15 people because I know I could easily get two to three times that many if I had enough spots,” Hamilton said. “But there is only one of me and I don’t think they want me teaching three sections of beer brewing.”