Americans drink 6.3 billion gallons of beer per year. It’s the go-to for football tailgates, mancaves, parties, and pub nights. But to home brewers, beer is more than just an enjoyable beverage — it’s an art, a science, a chance to innovate, and a tie to cultural heritage. Meet the professors on campus who brew at home and help make up the Hopsdale Homebrewers club.
Christopher Hamilton, professor of chemistry
Professor of Chemistry Chris Hamilton said he first heard of homebrewing in undergraduate school about 25 years ago.
“I had someone that was in German class do his presentation on beer brewing and he brought it to class and I was like, ‘This is cool. I’m a science major. I’m a biochemistry major. I could easily do this,’” Hamilton said.
He was right. After moving to Hillsdale College in 2007, Hamilton was once again exposed to homebrewing through a neighbor. After observing and learning from his neighbor for a year, Hamilton finally tried brewing it himself and has continued to do so for over a decade.
With his chemistry background, it is the scientific aspect of brewing that really appeals to Hamilton.
“When people ask me what my hobby is I reply, ‘Oh, chemistry.’ There’s a lot of science that goes into brewing beer,” he said.
Hamilton brews all-grain beers and often designs his own recipes. He described the process from start to finish, which begins with buying malt, crushing it, and putting it into a large temperature controlled vessel — called a mash tun — with hot water. That’s when chemistry takes over.
“There are enzymes in the grain that break down the starches, and those starches break down into simple sugars, which are important because that’s what turns into alcohol in the beer,” Hamilton said.
The resulting liquid is called the wort, which is concentrated and has hops added to it.
“Hops come in different varieties but they’re the flowers from a hop plant. Part of the reason for putting them in the boil is because it extracts a chemical in them called an alpha acid, and that alpha acid, when you boil it, causes a chemical reaction to happen,” Hamilton said. “It isomerizes into a compound which gives it that bitterness to help balance the sweetness of the beer. Certain beers have a lot of bitterness, others have a low amount of bitterness, and it’s related to the amount and timing of the hops that are added.”
Hamilton said he grows his own hops, which grow up to 15 feet high. According to Hamilton, Michigan has historically been a hops growing center because of its climate.
After he grows hops and brews beer, Hamilton said he loves to drink it after dinner every night. He also kegs it, brings it to the Hopsdale Homebrewing club to share, gives it to family and friends, and enters it into homebrew competitions, even winning awards for it at the county fair.
Though on sabbatical this year, Hamilton typically offers a one-credit chemistry class called “Beer: Science, Styles, and Sampling” for those interested in the science behind brewing.
Hamilton said he appreciates the versatility of brewing beer and the varied reasons people have for learning how to make it at home.
“I like the science side of things and I’ve ended up having research students doing things related to beer because of my enjoyment of beer and the science of understanding it,” Hamilton said. “Other people are the engineering type and they want to build ways to brew better and other people are into the culinary side and the food aspect of it, other people are into the social aspect and they like to try every possible style of beer that they can. Some people are very artistic and get into making cool bottle labels and tap handles.”
Courtney Meyet, chairwoman of chemistry
Chairwoman and Associate Professor of Chemistry Courtney Meyet has brewed with her husband for 11 years.
Meyet also became interested in homebrewing in graduate school. At University of California Riverside she met a homebrewer who worked across the hall and offered to teach her how to brew.
Like Hamilton, it was the scientific aspect — experimentation and trial and error — that appealed to Meyet. She learned early on in her homebrewing journey that an uneven sugar mixture in the beer can cause a mess.
“Of course, our first batch, we got it wrong,” Meyet said. “We were living in California at the time and the coolest place with the best fermentation temperature was underneath our cabin. So we had all the beer under there and we were sitting one afternoon and heard an explosion. And we heard another one after that, and my husband looks at me and goes, ‘It’s the beer.’”
In addition to homebrew beer, Meyet produces mead, which is a honey wine that can take multiple fementations over the course of a year to make.
“We have an apiary, so whenever we harvest the honey we have extra honey that’s left on the cappings on the outside of the honeycomb,” Meyet said. “We scrape those off into a bucket and that honey normally gets wasted but we rinse it out and that’s what we make our mead with.”
Meyet said the work and the waiting time is well worth the reward of brewing yourself.
“It is really fascinating, it’s so simple but yet it’s complicated,” Meyet said. “Once we’ve brewed the batch and gone through the motions and we’re getting ready to pitch the yeast, that’s like a ceremonial occasion for us.”
Fred Yaniga, chairman and associate professor of German
Chairman and Associate Professor of German Fred Yaniga became involved with homebrewing eight years ago through the Hopsdale Homebrewers club. Yaniga said he views homebrewing as a hobby, but also a way to seek virtue and experience more of the world.
“Dr. Hamilton is the scientist and I’m the amateur,” Yaniga said. “I have a lot of fun with it and I think there’s great virtue to be had in this hobby. One of the virtues is definitely patience because you can’t drink a beer until you’ve waited for it to mature and ferment and go from wort to beer to something that’s palatable. That requires a lot of prudent forethought.”
Yaniga said he tries to plan ahead for the holidays so that special beers will be prepared on time — having a homebrewed stout in the winter requires buying the ingredients and starting the process in the fall.
“My next beer project will be for Easter and that’s eight weeks out so I better get making that this weekend,” Yaniga said. “It’s a doppelbock, and I don’t drink beer during Lent so I’ll brew that and let it sit and I’ll rejoice even more on Easter Sunday when I tap that keg.”
Another great virtue to take away from homebrewing, according to Yaniga, is creativity and the ability to make something with one’s own hands.
“In academics we work with our head a lot, we work with ideas, and we don’t really create anything physically that’s tangible. This beer brewing hobby gives us the opportunity to make something that is physical and enjoyable and a product that we’ve made,” Yaniga said.
Enjoying the end product is a social event, both on a local level and across the craft brewing world.
“That’s why the homebrewing community is great, because typically you do it with other people and it’s a very social event,” Yaniga said. “I’ve had relationships with colleagues on campus who I would not come across in my day-to-day work.”
But the social benefit of homebrewing extends beyond local and national levels — it can unite across borders. According to Yaniga, there is an emerging homebrewing industry in Germany, which is influenced by American innovations in the field and the larger homebrew community.
“To be a German professor and not have a connection would be absurd in some way, so I try to live the stereotype a little bit through that,” Yaniga said. “I spend a lot of time in Germany, so I enjoy doing beer excursions around the countryside. In Germany there’s an awful lot of very regional styles of beer so that gives me an opportunity to go from place to place, meet new people, and drink their beer.”
The professors who help make up the Hopsdale Homebrewers club all have varied interests and reasons for homebrewing — chemistry, German culture, social opportunities — but one common denominator is the reward of putting in the work to homebrew to achieve the finished product.
As Professor Yaniga said, “The best beer you’ve ever had is the beer you’ve brewed yourself.”