Meadville Tribune

Local News

April 30, 2011

Allegheny students explore the physics behind the froth

MEADVILLE — A chemistry major, a biochem major, a history major, a video production major, a political science/environmental studies double major and an English/physics double major walk into a bar ...

Trust me — the punchline would be hysterical. But this particular group doesn’t have to hang out in bars. They’re part of a small but growing group of Allegheny College students who are honing their science skills through a very practical application — crafting their very own brews.

By day, professor David Statman is chair of the physics department at Allegheny, where he also serves on the chemistry department faculty. But when late Friday afternoon rolls around, he becomes a home brewer with a mission. “My goal is for students to learn science,” he says of the 12-member independent study class that gathers in a Carr Hall classroom every Friday at 4 p.m. “Maybe it’s an unconventional way, but it’s a way to get students in political science, history, comm arts — all of them — to realize that science is really pretty good.”

Mike Lanman, a video production major with a computer science minor, is one of those students. With four brews currently in various stages of development — American pale ale, chocolate oatmeal stout, cinnamon bock and a robust breakfast porter featuring a serious coffee component — he’s taking his newfound course of study very seriously. “I’ve always liked chemistry,” he confessed. “It’s a good idea to know what goes into what goes into you.”

The students — who must be at least 21 years old to participate — love it that they’re making beer, Statman said. “But what I see at the Friday meetings is that they’re champing at the bit to talk about science.”

The class, he hastens to add, is not an idea of his own creation.

Statman became a home brewer when couldn’t find a decent beer after moving to Meadville from Albuquerque 18 years ago. “Back then, you’d ask if a dealer had microbrews and they’d look at you like you came from Mars,” he recalled. That situation has improved dramatically over the years, but he and his wife, Melissa, a scientist in her own right, still enjoy brewing their own.

Because he was a home brewer, some students in the chemistry department approached him a couple of years ago. “They said they would love it if I could offer an independent study course in brewing,” Statman said.

The request couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment.

“Just before that, I was in a meeting in California where I met this biologist,” Statman recalled. “He said, ‘You know, if you really want to teach science, the way to do that is through case studies. I teach about how soy sauce is made — and that gets kids excited.’

“I thought, ‘Well, I can see how some people could get excited — but that wouldn’t excite me very much. But I’m a physicist.’ When these students said ‘beer,’ I said, ‘Oh. OK. I can do that.’ There’s a lot of physics in the bubbles of beer.”

In this class, students are learning the specifics of fine brewing while finding the answers to some tricky questions. “The students have to take it seriously — because I do,” Statman said.

For example, “We’ve looked at a lot of the biochemistry involved with the yeast and how alcohol and other compounds are made,” Statman said to his students during one of their last sessions of their academic year. “We learned that the biochemistry is quite complicated.

“The question is,” he continued, “we know that different yeasts provide different flavors. ... We already know that Belgian yeasts give you that banana sort of flavor Belgian ales are famous for. You have identified several different compounds that the yeasts produce, but which compounds are responsible for which flavors — and which yeasts produce them? What’s responsible for those flavors?”

That’s just one of the questions an ever-increasing number of brewmasters are asking nowadays as craft beer teeters on the edge of becoming the new wine. Pairing beer with food is capturing the attention of foodies all over the world — but the high-volume beers familiar to most Americans need not apply.

Even locally, “You’re seeing a change,” Statman said. “You’re seeing it when you go to a dinner party and it’s not a faux pas to have a beer.”

It’s a change that’s contagious. At the end of last year, one of his students came up to Statman and said, “You have ruined me.”

“I said, ‘How?’” Statman recalled. “He said, ‘If I go into a bar, I can’t drink that other stuff anymore.” All of a sudden they’re spending $4, $5 or $6 for a beer instead of a dollar or two, which is good, because then you drink less — and you appreciate the beer. Once you’re accustomed to good beer, it’s hard to go back.”

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com

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