College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

New course teaches the art and science of beer brewing

Beer brewing equipment is set up inside a large room
Newly arrived equipment in the on-campus brewing laboratory.

One of Iowa State University’s newest courses will teach an ancient practice that has gained mass popularity in recent years: beer brewing.

Robert C. Brown (left) works alongside Jessica Brown (no relation) while brewing their Capsaicin Sour ale.

FS HN 273X/ME 273X: Science and Practice of Brewing will be taught for the first time during the Spring 2022 semester by Robert C. Brown, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering and Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering. The three-credit course, which includes 1 ½ hours of lecture and 4 ½ hours of laboratory work each week, covers the roles that malts, hops, yeast and water play in producing beer. Student must be 21 years of age and complete alcohol server training before being allowed into the laboratory.

“Students will be expected to apply concepts in chemistry and biology as well as food science and engineering to the practice of brewing,” said Brown, who is a brewer himself. “Health, safety and environmental considerations in alcohol production and consumption are also important aspects of the course.”

Brown has selected John Palmer’s “How to Brew” as the textbook for the course, in part because he likes how it balances the science and practice of brewing, but also because he wanted to keep it affordable for students.

John Blichmann, a mechanical engineering (ME) alum and owner of Blichmann Engineering, also played a role in making this course a reality. Blichmann came across the article about Brown’s brewing endeavors which led him to contact Brown and inquire about donating some equipment to Iowa State. Blichmann’s company manufactures brewing equipment for both the home and industrial scales.

“We hope he can visit campus this spring to see the impact of his donation and talk to students in the course,” Brown said.

Two men hold up a tube as part of the beer brewing process.
Efrain Rodriguez-Ocasio (left) works alongside Robert C. Brown.

While this course will be new, Brown has more than a decade of brewing experience. That experience came to a head earlier this month when Brown and his brew team found out they won the “People’s Choice” award during the annual brewing competition hosted by the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE). Brown was approached by ME Ph.D. student Jessica Brown (no relation) about forming a team to compete in the AIChE brewing competition. They then enlisted the help of chemical engineering Ph.D. student Efrain Rodriguez-Ocasio and the trio concocted two beers, both of which were brewed with hot chili peppers, for the contest. Their “Capsaicin Sour” ended up winning both the People’s Choice award as well as first runner-up. 

“Some folks thought our ‘Turn Up the Heat’ Chocolate Stout was a bit too fiery,” said Brown. “My own opinion is that it pairs well with food that could use a good kick.”

Jessica Brown said one of their goals was to find the perfect balance of spice and sourness. To do this the team brewed nine different versions of their ale and relied on a panel of sensory evaluators to determine the brew with the best balance. The panel consisted of Iowa State faculty and staff, including Thomas Mansell, Karen and Dennis Vaughn Faculty Fellow and assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering, who is a certified beer judge. Brown said the experience allowed her to learn more about fermentation processes which she plans to apply to her Ph.D. research.

A female student and a male professor stand next to a giant cutout of a beer mug with the text: "WELCOME TO THE 2021 AIChE BEER BREWING COMPETITION
Jessica Brown (left) and Robert C. Brown (no relation) pose next to a giant mug sign at the 2021 AIChE Beer Brewing Competition

“This competition helped me gain fundamental knowledge in microbial processes that gave me a new perspective on our research, a project funded by DARPA on converting waste plastic to macronutrients through hybrid thermochemical and biological processes,” Brown said, adding that she looks forward to sitting in on FS HN 273X/ME 273X in the spring to learn more.

Rodriguez-Ocasio first connected with Robert C. Brown through the DARPA grant and was already familiar with a lot of the fermentation equipment through his research. Rodriguez-Ocasio saw the brewing competition as an opportunity to learn from a veteran brewer about something that has always interested him.

“The brewing competition was a fun way to learn about the brewing process and we got to see firsthand how simple changes to process affect taste and flavor,” he said.

FS HN 273X/ME 273X will be offered at the 200-level during its initial semester, but Brown hopes they might eventually elevate it to a 300-level course so it can serve as a technical elective for engineering students. Additionally, Brown would like to explore the potential of establishing a brewing certificate program which might be offered in conjunction with related courses in biochemistry, hospitality management and perhaps even new courses not currently being offered.

A color label for the beer brewed by a team of ISU researchers. The text reads: New & Old Timers Brewing Club - Capsaicin Sour Wild Specialist Beer. The label also includes artwork of three hot peppers riding on a pirate ship.
A label for the Capsaicin Sour ale. Artwork by Trevor Brown and Elian Brown.

Brown is quick to recognize others at Iowa State who have devoted time and effort to make this brewing course, and its accompanying lab, a reality. Zhiyou Wen, director of Iowa State’s Center for Crops Utilization Research (CCUR), will co-teach the course with Brown. Jordan Funkhouser, manager of CCUR, provided a vision for the brew lab’s setup and helped with the implementation. Lorraine Lanningham-Foster, interim chair of food science and human nutrition (FS HN); Terri Boylston, curriculum chair for FS HN; and Erin Norton, education and outreach specialist for Iowa State’s Midwest Grape and Wine Industry Institute, all played a crucial role in getting this course added to the university catalog.

For a student who has an interest in brewing, but no experience, Brown’s advice is simple.

“Experience is not as important as curiosity about brewing. I hope students will be as interested in the science of brewing as they are in the finished product,” he said.