On Tap at Creighton: Beer Chemistry

On Tap at Creighton: Beer Chemistry

By Micah Mertes

Come learn about chemistry. About the fundamental scientific principles underlying everyday life. About solubility, concentration, extraction, metabolism, biomolecules, ions and enzymes ... Come learn about beer. How to brew it. How to study it. How to, if you so choose, infuse the flavors of peanut butter and jelly into it. Class is 21 and older to enter. Please experiment responsibly.

Creighton’s Chemistry of Brewing course, first offered through the Honors Program in 2018, picks up again this spring. The class’ humble beginnings, says chemistry professor James Fletcher, PhD, first fermented in Creighton’s Chemistry Club.

“We started brewing beer for fun,” he says. “Then it evolved to the point where I felt there was enough material to teach a class on it. I had to teach myself quite a bit of homebrewing technique beforehand. I’m an organic chemist first and an amateur brewer second.”

Chemistry of Brewing isn’t just for science students. Fletcher designed the class to work for Honors Program science and nonscience majors alike.

“The class starts simple,” Fletcher says. “But by the end of the semester, all the students feel like expert brewers.”

In class, students learn about the history of brewing and the scientific principles of the craft. But the brewing itself starts right away. They partner up to conduct experiments in extract brewing, using brewing kits to turn water, barley, hops and yeast into beer.

For the first few experiments, the class tinkers with a specific variable. In the water experiment, for instance, each pair of students uses the same recipe but varies the type of water — using tap water, distilled water or different kinds of filtered water. The type of water alters the properties of the beer, which the class then measures for color, flavor, alcohol content, etc.

The class then alters the experiment for the next few batches, varying the barley, hops or yeast, each amended ingredient making or breaking the brew, the scientific method as applied to an especially sudsy diversion.

“I’d never had a class like this before,” says chemistry major Colin Reedy, BS’19. “It was great because it was a new way of approaching concepts I was familiar with, but in a different, more practical way. Also, you know, I like beer.”

Once each batch comes to fruition, students do a tasting and catalog their findings. Fletcher’s class syllabus demands moderation: “No individual student will be permitted to consume greater than 12 ounces of beer per tasting session. Students who overindulge will be asked to leave the classroom for the day and will receive a grade of zero for any activities missed as a result.”

For the final project, students design their own beer and host an end-of-year open house, where guests vote on the best brew. For the past two years, a Russian imperial stout has emerged the victor.

Students get creative with it. Reedy and his partner brewed a grapefruit India pale ale. Dillon Nerland and Kaylee Schwasinger, both BS’19, made a vanilla bourbon porter. Ben Kruse and Hana O’Hagan, both BSChm’19, used ingredients with nutty and fruity tones to create a peanut butter and jelly ale.

“This class was great,” O’Hagan says. “Chemistry majors learn a lot of theory, and I love theory, but it’s exciting to be in a class where we’re applying that theory to something like beer.”

Given the novelty of the syllabus, it’s surprising that none of the Chemistry of Brewing classes so far have reached capacity.   

“That’s because of that word ‘chemistry’ in the title,” O’Hagan says. “As a chemistry major, that breaks my heart, but it’s true. But that shouldn’t scare people. The class is really accessible because Dr. Fletcher is such a good teacher.”

Fletcher has since taken his course on the road, giving Science of Beer presentations to Creighton alumni and friends at breweries in Omaha, Kansas City, Missouri, and, just this fall, Chicago. Each event has sold out.

“The public talks have been a fun, approachable way to teach people science,” Fletcher says. “I’m trying to do my small part to promote science for the general public, to show people how science works and how scientists think and how knowledge of science is important to being an informed citizen.”

And how science curriculum, if properly brewed, has a nice, crisp aftertaste.