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Christopher Hamilton’s home­brewed beer.
Courtesy | Christopher Hamilton

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.”