This Pitt class uses engineering to teach students about craft beer

You have to be 21. You also get to go to Belgium during spring break.

Girls Just Want to Drink Beer.

Girls Just Want to Drink Beer.

theNerdPatrol / flickr
MJ Slaby

Everything students need to open a brewery can’t be taught in a single semester. But one class at University of Pittsburgh is covering two aspects — engineering and chemistry.

“Engineering a Craft Brewery,” aka Engineering 1933 — yes, that class number is a nod to the year prohibition was lifted — is being offered for the second time this spring, with a few additions.

Last year, the class was open to chemical engineering, bioengineering and mechanical engineering students. This spring, any engineering student can take it, though students must be 21 on the first day of class, a non-negotiable. Because, yes, students do drink in class.

The class also now includes an 11-day trip to Belgium during spring break.

One of the stops is in Bruges, where a two-mile beer pipeline was installed to get beer from Halve Maan Brewery, which is surrounded by narrow streets, to the bottling plant on the town’s outskirts where it’s easier for distribution trucks to reach.

“If that’s not a feat of engineering, I don’t know what is,” laughed the class’s instructor Robert S. Parker who is the Robert v.d. Luft Professor in Pitt’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering.

Earlier this fall, The Incline featured more unusual courses at local colleges. Like “Engineering a Craft Brewery,” they’re the classes that make you ask: “Why wasn’t that offered when I was in school?” Catch up on those classes here.

The Incline met Parker at Fuel and Fuddle in Oakland for a beer and lunch to talk more about the class and why it’s a fit for engineering students.

Brewing an engineering course

Parker has been a homebrewer on and off since 2000. For a while, he said, the crazy idea was to open a brewery at some point, maybe as a retirement project. But then he thought: Can I bring my hobby to work?

He started thinking about all the connections between brewing and engineering and cell science — for example, heat transfer, mass transfer and reaction. Then, he learned that University of Kentucky had a similar class. Parker got a copy of the UK syllabus and started working with Pitt on his version of the course.

Parker said there are some requirements that make this class unique. Not only do students have to be 21 from day 1, but students can opt out of drinking any homebrew beers or the beers in general. Per university requirements, students can’t drink more than 12 oz. in one class.

During quizzes, Parker asks students to drink multiple beers of the same style — and including one homebrew — and to describe the beer by details including appearance, aroma and taste.

“It’s about building a beer vocabulary,” he said.

The spring class is already full with 84 students and another 40 on the waiting list. Of the 84 students, 24 opted into the trip to Belgium. Parker said he’d love to have more students in the course, but there’s only so much space in the classroom. Plus, with 84 students, he said, he can stick to four cases of beer per quiz. Students pay a $100 lab fee to cover the beer.

Throughout the class, students also work on designing equipment and piping utilities for the brewing process in a fictional craft brewery.

Even though the age requirement restricts the class to juniors and seniors, Parker said it’s an upper level engineering course … even without the drinking.

“It’s about taking core engineering knowledge and applying that,” he said, adding that’s what students will do as they move into careers in specialized areas of the field.

Plus, he said, it’s a topic that students are motivated to learn about.

“The students do appreciate being the beer experts among their friends,” he laughed.

Take a quiz

Parker shared his quizzes with The Incline, minus the homebrews. Remember, if you really want to stay true to the Pitt course, drink no more than 12 oz. per quiz.

Instructions: “Describe each beer along the following attributes: Appearance, Aroma, Taste, Mouthfeel, Finish. Also note any off-flavors you detect. The BJCP [beer judge certification program] style sheet may be helpful.”

Quiz #1: Wheat

  • Bell’s Oberon
  • Blue Moon
  • Jailbreak Feed the Monkey

Quiz #2: Pilsner

  • Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils
  • Pilsner Urquell
  • Czechvar, Victory Prima Pils

Quiz #3: Porter

  • Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter
  • Deschutes Black Butte Porter
  • Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter

Quiz #4: Stout

  • Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout
  • Guinness Stout (Nitro can)
  • Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro bottle

Quiz #5: IPA

  • Dogfish Head 60 Minute
  • Bell’s Two-Hearted
  • Ithaca Flower Power

Quiz #6: Sour

  • Brew Gentlemen Mise en Rose
  • Victory Sour Monkey
  • Lindemann’s Framboise