ORONO, Maine — For something with such a basic recipe — water, malted barley, hops and yeast — beer is a surprisingly complex mixture of science and art. Complex enough to become the focus of a course set to start next semester at the University of Maine.
Brian Perkins, a laboratory director and research assistant professor with UMaine’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Jason Bolton, a food safety educator and assistant extension professor of food safety with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, are preparing a class for the spring 2013 semester that will delve into the science behind what makes beer beer.
“There are so many scientific aspects associated with brewing, from the growing of the hops, the chemistry of the hops, the flavor of the hops, the chemistry of the water, the biological life cycle of yeast, there are just so many interactions,” Perkins said Friday.
FSN 121, or Brewing with Food Science, will have a 60-student cap at first, but Perkins and Bolton see room for growth, or more spinoff courses, if the class turns out to be as popular as they predict. The three-credit course satisfies the general science requirement. Classes will be held from 9:30-10:45 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“We’re hoping this course really takes off, and I think it will,” Perkins said.
If it does well, the course could eventually spawn a brewing-related minor at UMaine. Similar programs are available at other universities.
Any UMaine student can take the course because it’s lecture based, and doesn’t involve producing or tasting beer, which would carry a 21-plus requirement, according to Bolton.
Beer isn’t just fun, Perkins said, it’s about microbiology, chemistry, sensory analysis, and it can serve as a solid introduction to other aspects of the world of food science.
“We’re just using this as a venue to get students interested in science and, in particular, interested in food science,” Perkins said.
Classically trained food scientists are hard to come by, Perkins said, but there is no job shortage. He said job placement in food science after graduation is near 100 percent and many jobs rival salary levels found in the engineering field.
The booming craft brewing industry in Maine and across the nation is likely to continue to contribute to those opportunities, Perkins said.
Students will learn how yeast, a living organism that converts sugars in the malts into byproducts, such as carbon dioxide and alcohol, works and why different yeasts can drastically change the characteristics of a beer.
In another lecture, students will learn about hops, the plant that gives beer much of its flavor, bitterness and aroma. Perkins, who grows his own hops at home, will bring in several varieties for students to smell and compare.
The course also will feature segments ranging from responsible drinking to the history of beer, a beverage that outdates any known historical records. One common theory of how beer came to be is that an absent-minded nomad may have left a vessel filled with grain out in the rain before bringing it inside, only to notice it begin to bubble and ferment. The nomad may have tried the bubbly brew and noticed it gave him an interesting feeling. Records of beer production date back more than 6,000 years to ancient Sumeria.
The course isn’t about homebrewing, according to the professors, it’s about the science behind larger-scale commercial brewing. Professional brewers from local and statewide microbreweries will visit students to discuss their craft and industry.
While students won’t be directly involved in brewing, the professors will be making beer during the course, sharing videos and images of the process as it progresses, Perkins said. Researchers will take the opportunity to analyze ingredients, such as hops and other beer additives from Maine. Perkins sees potential for research on everything from berries and spices to maple syrup to see how they affect the characteristics of various beers and consider the effect the commercial brewing industry has in Maine.
“We’re not just doing this because it’s fun and because it’s beer and because students like beer,” Perkins said. “We actually think we can use beer as a model to get students interested in science.”