Chemistry goes pints-up

OK, ‘beer’ and ‘higher education’ is a mixed bag of things, often involving brushes with the law or, at the very least, a few laughs for those of us with a sense of schadenfreude. The view gets even narrower when one thinks about the connection between chemistry and beer: alcohol, usually ethanol, is a chemical. Then again, so is water, but tell that to the organic-savvy. That’s it – that’s all the chemistry that quite a few people know about beer.

The beer-savvy on the other hand (and this goes double for professional or hobby brewers) know that there’s a lot more to the relationship between beer and chemistry. For example, the idea of pH – the measure of how acidic or basic a substance is – was the work of Søren P. L. Sørensen while working at the Carlsberg Laboratory. To all you international and especially European readers (and especially those who follow sci.casual, you beautiful casual people you), if the name ‘Carlsberg’ sounds familiar, I know what you’re thinking, and yes it is. According to a paper recently published in the Journal of Chemical Education, the process of brewing beer is very closely tied to chemical engineering (the fact that the authors are also Danish may be a coincidence). Nielsen et al. (of Aalborg University in Esbjerg, Denmark) attest that it encompasses a diverse set of not just chemistry, but several aspects of science, including microbiology and the manufacturing process. In fact, they proposed making an entire curriculum out of it. It’s a good thing that their curriculum is based on problem-based learning, where any learning is not only based on solving a huge problem (I suppose something related to beer-making?), students themselves decide the direction in which the project – thus what they learn – proceeds. A lot of it is group-related too – look, I know we scientists get a lot of stick for stereotypical social ineptitude, but there’s a lot of collaboration involved in science. Can’t science if you can’t talk to other people.

(Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-30 Unported, Author: Shanghai killer whale)

Instead of rattling out a long list of facts and instrumental procedures in order to find answers that already exist, among the many misconceptions about doing science, students have to seek out answers that don’t actually exist yet, and possibly ask more questions in order to steer the research and the problem-solving into the next phase, whatever it is. This involves a lot of research, a lot of ideas (and hopefully not industrial equipment) blowing up in your face, and so on. There’s a lot of failure in real science, but there’s more to be learned in failure than in success.

Anyway, the authors created course modules made of related courses that help students deal with a particular part of a project. For example, courses in bioactive molecules, thermodynamics, and calculus deals with chemical reactions in natural (like in yeast, very important in beer brewing) and technical (like what’s going on in a storage tank) systems. As part of the thesis section, the module includes experimental design, process control, and entrepreneurship. Hey, it’s time for them to get out on their own, and the university is supposed to help them become more well-rounded people, after all.

(Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-30, Author: Ericci8996)

So why make a curriculum around beer brewing, apart from this is Denmark and Europe’s got a long tradition of brewing, not to mention that beer is a large part of the scientific enterprise (if you only knew how many collaborations have been proposed in pubs, not to mention quite a bit of public outreach)? The authors figured that most of the chemical engineering program of studies could be fulfilled with their problem-based course structure. Also, it makes learning more meaningful – even though students have more responsibility for their own learning, which makes it harder for them, they are able to take better ownership of their learning. They’re learning and doing less of what instructors and the institution wants them to do, and more for what they want to do. In addition, it’s hard to make connections sometimes between courses, especially in university. This time, transferring what they know between courses is easier, since the modules tie those courses together.

(Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-30, Author: Pavel Sevela)

One ring (a coaster anyway) to rule them all, and in science bind them.

Featured Article: Nielsen RP, Sørensen JL, Simonsen ME, Madsen HT, Muff J, Strandgaard M, Søgaard EG (2016). Brewing as a comprehensive learning platform in chemical engineering. Journal of Chemical Education 93: 1549-1555.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-40 International, Author: AlejandroLinaresGarcia)


      1. I think you’re right — I just read another post that referenced that silly song “They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard!”


    1. The local section of the American Chemical Society (which I’m part of) had a tour of a local winery and talked about exactly that not long ago. And I MISSED IT!!! Stupid cold…

      Oh well, if there’s any new research regarding developments in wine culture, you’ll hear it from me.

      Liked by 1 person

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