Brewing, the making of alcoholic malt beverages by steeping, boiling and fermenting malt and hops, is a practice generally attributed to the hospitality, food and beverage industries. However, brewing is a science. And scientists are rushing to experiment.
“When people think about science, they tend to think about chemistry or biology,” said Dr. Ken Caswell, chemistry and environmental science instructor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM). “It’s important to remember that science is the process of investigation to establish evidence-based information through experimentation; it underlies everything we do, from brushing our teeth or making a sandwich to simply driving down the road.” Or, apparently, brewing a tasty adult beverage.
Investigation and experimentation are at the core of USFSM’s elective beverage courses. Established in spring 2015, these courses introduce the science underlying aspects of beer, its brewing process and pairings with food. The Introduction to Beer Science and Chemistry and Microbiology of Beer courses focus on hospitality and science, respectively, but they are proudly interdisciplinary.
“Nowadays, students have incredibly high tech devices with more information at their fingertips than any other point in history,” said Caswell. “We tap into that by creating learning environments that provide opportunities for students to learn about topics that are contextually interesting to them. We approach these courses as experiential learning opportunities, as opposed to putting up four white walls.”
Local industry leaders including Big Top, Darwin Brewing, Green Bench Brewing, Cigar City Brewing, Coppertail Brewing, Calusa Brewing, Motorworks Brewing and Florida Worldwide Citrus generously donate their time, resources, facilities and advice to enrich the beer science courses by providing students with real-world context for their studies and research outside of the classroom.
With a diverse range of majors represented in both courses, Caswell does not expect to create a wave of brew masters. Rather, his goal is to inspire students to pursue a lifelong exploration of learning experiences that are relevant to their individual interests.
“It’s that spark,” said Caswell. “The moment they think ‘I didn’t know this existed, so there must be other really interesting things out there, as well’.”
Caswell had that effect on Erika Johnson, a former Introduction to Beer Science student, who currently works as a microbiologist at Ion Labs in Largo where she oversees quality control, probiotic enumeration, and the testing of raw materials and finished products of the labs’ dietary supplements.
“That course, mixed with my own life experience, had a major impact on me,” said Johnson. “I’ve always loved beer, but I left that course with such a greater understanding and appreciation for what goes into producing it.”
Throughout the course, students are required to keep a “brewer’s lab notebook,” used to track progress and log notes on what they find interesting.
“I still keep a notebook to this day,” said Johnson. “I live in consistent pursuit of learning new things on a variety of topics; I use that book to take notes that I can draw back to later.”
Johnson’s interest in microbiology was sparked at a young age. Her father, also a microbiologist, allowed her to help in his lab and supported her complex science fair projects.
“Ultimately, I chose microbiology because I was really interested in working in the field of brewing,” said Johnson. “My dad works with breweries on the side; after talking with him, I made the connection that I could use my microbiology degree to work with brewing in some capacity.”
However, as Johnson was approaching graduation, she discovered that finding work in a lab as an undergraduate is not easy. “It’s extremely competitive,” said Johnson. “I tried so many times, wrote all of the right emails, but kept striking out.”
Two weeks before her final semester, in fall 2016, Johnson received an email about the Introduction to Beer Science course and signed up for the course immediately.
“That course was exactly what I was looking for. I saw it as the perfect way to wrap up my educational career,” said Johnson.
While a variety of majors were represented by students enrolled in the course, Johnson’s background in science was apparent in the writing style of her investigative reports which was required at the beginning of class to prepare students for the topic of the day. Caswell, taking note of Johnson’s track and points of interest, approached her early in the semester with a proposal.
“He came up to me and simply said ‘I’m going to make some calls and get you set up with an internship,” Johnson recalls. “I was shocked. After having doors closed for so long, this opportunity was just incredible.”
She went on to work with the lab team at Coppertail Brewing Co. where, under the supervision of Lab Technician Sam Swartz, she learned about quality control processes required to ensure that production is safe and consistent.
While Johnson may be currently working in a more “mainstream” field of microbiology, her longstanding passion for beer and brewing has stuck with her. “I have a really comprehensive collection of brewing books, which has only grown since I finished the course,” said Johnson.