USFSM’s Science of Beer class draws culinary, science-minded students

Left to right, USFSM students Markos Perez, Edgar Bischoff and Alexis Brodil question Brew Master Jorge Rosabal during a tour of the Darwin Brewing Co. Photo by Krista Schrock

Left to right, USFSM students Markos Perez, Edgar Bischoff and Alexis Brodil question Brew Master Jorge Rosabal during a tour of the Darwin Brewing Co.                                                                                       Photo by Krista Schrock

SARASOTA, Fla. (Sept. 28, 2015) – The glass beakers, 18 stainless steel fermenters and canning device at the building’s far end left little doubt as to the science at the heart of Chef Joe Askren and Dr. Ken Caswell’s increasingly popular class, Introduction to Beer Science.

Last Thursday, 23 students enrolled in the class got first-hand glimpses into how that science comes together – from early moments when “mash” is stewed, forming a kind of sweet slurry, to the weeks-long fermentation process that causes beer’s typical sudsy characteristic – during a special tour of the Bradenton-based Darwin Brewing Co.

The brew house and tap room, which sits within foul ball distance of McKechnie Field and the spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, opened its doors to USFSM students for nearly two hours, allowing them to poke around and pose questions, such as what’s the optimal temperature for fermenting lagers?

(Below 50 degrees, it turns out. And since lagers ferment at lower temperatures than ales, they require a longer fermentation – at least 10 days longer, Darwin co-owner and Brew Master Jorge Rosabal said.)

Askren, an instructor and director at USFSM’s Culinary Innovation Lab, and Dr. Caswell, a chemistry instructor, say beer making is the perfect venue for combining culinary arts with headier chemistry and biology subjects. And given the surge in popularity of craft beers and microbrew houses, the class couldn’t be more perfectly timed.

When introduced last spring, about 12 students enrolled in the class. Now, it boasts nearly twice that number. “We were hoping for 15 and got well over that,” Askren said, adding that about a third of this semester’s students are biology majors, making for an interdisciplinary experience.

In addition to learning beer basics, brew operations and touring local breweries, the students will work in teams to develop their own batch of beer to be paired with food at a special event Dec. 3 at the main campus. This semester marks the first time the class is offered both to hospitality and biology majors. A second beer-related course, the Chemistry and Microbiology of Beer, is also offered.

“Microbreweries can thank our younger generation for having a more curious palate when it comes to beer,” Askren said of rise of brew houses. “They see beer as more of an experience and appreciate the multitude of flavors given to them. All of the successful microbreweries have a legitimate story to tell about how they came to be, which their audience enjoys.”

After touring the brewing plant, the students crowded around Darwin’s ample, rectangular bar to take turns sampling some of the dozen flavors. Some students swirled their beers, giving a sniff before downing them quickly. Others took light sips, seeming to savor the foamy concoctions.

Hunched over sheets of paper, each made tasting notes, such as “smokiness,” or “hints of chocolate,” as they tried to coax out subtle and sometimes pronounced differences between the extensive menu of lagers and ales.

In addition to Darwin’s, the students have already made or will make tours of the Sarasota-based Big Top Brewing Co., St. Petersburg-based Green Bench Brewing Co. and Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing Co. Askren said he wants the students – even those not necessarily huge fans of beer – to at least gain an appreciation for the business, art and science of beer-making, which can be tricky to master.

The process, which can take weeks, starts with “malting,” or the boiling down of barley to release its sugars. The resulting sweet liquid, called wort, is combined with yeast, hops and sometimes other flavors in anticipation of the weeks-long fermentation. Hops, a balancing agent, introduce bitterness to counteract the sweet wort. Ingredients, timing and temperature all play critical roles in developing the complex layers of flavor. Even the type of bottle can be significant, Askren said.

Breweries introduced colored bottles not so much as a marketing ploy but to block light, which can trigger oxidation leading a sour or “skunky” beer taste, he said. Some beer aficionados insist cans are the way to go because they both block light and provide a tight seal.

The brewing process isn’t just tricky, Rosabal said. It requires long hours of boiling, fermenting, testing and cleaning – a lot of cleaning.

“I would say I spend 20 percent of my time brewing and 80 percent cleaning,” said Rosabal, who studied for years under German brew masters. “There’s a lot of cleaning involved.”

Alexis Brodil, 21, a marketing major with a minor in hospitality management, said she’s not “a big beer drinker,” but she appreciates the technical side of beer-making, which piqued her interest to register for the class.

“I liked looking at the different operations. I’m more interested in the making of it,” she said. “This (place) has a kind of homey, warm feel. It’s smaller, but very organized.”

Another student, Edgar Bischoff, 38, a biology major, said he was lured by beer-making’s chemical and biological side, plus it provided something that online classes can’t offer: direct in-person participation. After mastering the basics, the students will create their own specialty beers, working in teams elbow-to-elbow with local brewers to put to test what they learned in the classroom.

“It’s a hands-on class and I like that,” Bischoff said.

To learn more about USF Sarasota-Manatee’s College of Arts & Sciences, visit http://usfsm.edu/college-of-arts-sciences/. To learn more about the College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership, visit http://usfsm.edu/chtl/.