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Learning about beer and science at University of King’s College

Technology, history, chemistry, and beer–could this be the best course ever?

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Left: Ian Stewart teaches "Brewing Civilization" at the University of King's College in Halifax. Right: Brewing was the topic of many historical woodcuttings.

A massive picture of a glass of beer projects on the screen at the front of the lecture hall as students jot notes about hops and barley. The mood in the University of King’s College classroom is light, but Brewing Civilization is no bird course.

“In one way it’s a totally simple concept: take beer, the places in which it was brewed and drunk, and follow that through history to see how the story of science and technology is woven into the story of brewing and vice versa,” says Ian Stewart, an assistant professor in the History of Science and Technology Programme who teaches the class this year.

One example of the relationship between brewing and science is the thermometer. The instrument was invented in the 16th century, but not standardized to have a dedicated scale until much later. “Because temperature is so important to precise brewing, it became standard,” says Stewart. “Then it in turn become subject to more precise study, which eventually leads to advances in chemistry.”

Each week students will discuss the history of brewing science in a heavily academic way. But some classes will end with a guest speaker, and a little extra fun injected. Two of those guest speakers are Stephen Crane, manager of the Burnside Noble Grape brew supply store, and brewer Jonathan Primack. In 2014 they started a brewing collective dedicated to reviving historical beers.

“We started looking at historical styles, recipes, and process that had been forgotten about. But doing them with modern equipment and seeing how we could improve on them,” says Crane. The pair jokingly named their team Mega Force Best Friends, which stuck. Today they use the acronym MFBF.

Their role is to give two in-class lectures on equipment and ingredients, and act as a sounding board for students who want to brew their own historical recipe as a final project. Last year students brewed up a Russian Imperial Stout and a Kentucky Common (a traditional American style that’s enjoying a recent revival).

“Historical brews have been largely forgotten about in the race [for brewers] to find the next new crazy thing. But the next new crazy thing is making historical styles, and making them better with today’s equipment,” says Crane.

Maya Soukup, a fourth-year Earth Sciences student from Dal, is a home brewer and can’t wait to try her hand at a historic brew. “I’ve heard about this class from previous students,” she says. “Last year they did an hour long segment on this class and brought in some beer brewed by the students from an ancient Egyptian recipe.”

In addition to brewing (and writing a paper on it, this is still a university class), students can interview a local brewer to better understand how technology affects their product, or write a term paper on a technological development related to brewing.

Crane sees this class as an opportunity for students to pick up a Humanities credit and a useful skill. “You can use the understanding of fermentation in a lot of things from beer to bread to preserves,” says Crane.

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