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Back by popular demand: Beer

In all the years that Science Cafe New Hampshire has been bringing science to the city, by far the most popular session we’ve hosted was “The Science of Beer” in 2013.  This month, the committee decided to revisit this vital topic just prior to the Gate City Brewfest (happening this Saturday) to ensure that you know just what you’re getting into!

We have an exceptional panel of experts lined up, including brewmasters from three local breweries, Spyglass, Litherman and Anheuser-Busch, who will be able to help us understand the difference between lager, stout, pilsner and double IPA.  They will explain the science of creating the perfect brew and how to manage ingredients, fermentation, time and temperature to get great results time after time. Brewing beer truly is a science, and brewers achieve consistency by controlling hundreds of factors that impact smell, taste and drinkability. 

But brewing also can be a vocation and, as in many places, New Hampshire has experienced tremendous growth in craft breweries over recent years resulting in more than 70 operating breweries in our state today.  UNH has responded to this emerging market by developing a degree minor program that allows students to learn the art, science and business of brewing. Cheryl Parker is the UNH brewery manager and Science Cafe panelist who is developing this exciting program.  “Last year was spent getting the brewery operational,” she said. “This year, we are working to engage other departments and making them aware of what we have to offer students.”

Nationally, there are around 50 schools that offer programs in brewing of one sort or another, ranging from the Master Brewing Program at UC Davis to majors at a handful of schools to a wide range of minors, classes and seminars.  From hobbyists to professionals, programs have emerged to serve them. People may wonder if craft brewing is a fad destined to go the way of the Pet Rock.  “Beer has been around for 30,000 years or so and it’s always been there,” Parker said. “The U.S. is different from much of the world, because prohibition resulted in each state designing their own rules for alcohol.  It’s taken awhile for the rules to change, but these days, we have over 7,000 breweries in the U.S., and that number keeps going up.”

At UNH, students in the brewing program learn about fundamentals of biology and chemistry in order to ensure proper water chemistry, grain and hops production, and the process of fermentation and distribution. They learn the math and science behind complex recipes and how to blend ingredients to produce the desired taste, fragrance and body with the right alcohol content every time.  They learn the nuances of starting a brewery and the business challenges of finance, marketing, sales and distribution. By participating in the brewing courses, students are exposed to the many facets of the product creation experience, engaged in hands-on science, and learning to give and accept criticism, in addition to drinking a little beer.

Graduates are in high demand as New Hampshire breweries are in need of people who understand the science and business of beer and its supply chain.  Farmers switching from corn to growing grains, brewery hospitality rooms, transportation and delivery logistics, malthouses and more represent a growing ecosystem of economic opportunity around the production and delivery of beer.  Students who enter beer related businesses already knowing the science and terminology will have a competitive advantage and perhaps land jobs that will keep them in New Hampshire (we can hope).

But even if you’re not ready to go back to school, Science Cafe is a chance to ask your home brewing questions, drill down on the science and formulas involved and pick the brains of others.  In home brewing, contamination of the process is one of the more common problems, but bad beer won’t kill you.  “No dangerous bacteria live in beer, it’s biologically safe. You can’t get cholera from beer,” Parker said.  For those home brewers, this is a chance to ask real experts about ingredient choices, brewing with grains, favorite recipes or whatever challenges you’re facing.

But even if you don’t want to go to school or brew your own, Science Cafe has something to offer those who just want to sit back and sip a few – a sampling. Yes, you can sample beers from the breweries on our panel (for a small charge) and ask them what it takes to make each one. In addition to the usual great Riverwalk beers, each panelist will have the chance to address their specific beers and your questions about what you taste.

As always, Science Cafe is free and open to the public, so come join the conversation!

Science Cafe is hosted at the Riverwalk Cafe & Music Bar. You can learn more about Science Cafe New Hampshire at www.ScienceCafeNH.org.

Dan Marcek is co-founder of Science Cafe New Hampshire and can be reached at dan@vetflix.org.