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By Charlie Fehl

Charlie FehlThe strong, dually sweet/bitter aroma of steaming wort over a burner on a chilly spring day is a surprisingly unifying event.

When one tells a stranger for the first time that they make his or her own beer, that person often looks at you and assumes that you must be some sort of mad scientist. In my case, they will find out that their assumption is indeed correct, and some are then further baffled by this seeming artsiness.

But in homebrewing, that line is blurred. Every brewer is at once both an artist and a scientist. You need the science to create the art.

Brewing, to those of legal age, offers an accessible example of how science and art can be tastily combined. To compose a recipe, extract the sugars, proteins, and tannins required for your desired flavor, to balance the reactivity of hop terpenes (isomerizing to bitter iso-α-acids) with their volatility, and finally to ferment a clean lager with a pure yeast culture (or else a funky farmhouse ale with mixed strains) is ultimately all scientific experimentation when you get down to the practical level.

Fehl_brewing_profile_pictureThus, homebrewing is a unique hobby in that it gets a room of brewing enthusiasts, many of whom have not donned a lab coat since high school chemistry, discussing the ester (fruity aromas) vs. diacetyl (buttery) or dreaded dimethylsulfide (need I say more?) profiles of their experiments, or else discoursing on fine-tuning the nuances of the enzymatic conversions they carry out in the five-gallon kettle out back. As a trained chemist, I ceaselessly find the suddenly-shared parlance of organic chemical nomenclature in homebrewing fascinating.

As such, homebrewing represents a fantastic, and rare, outreach opportunity for science. I have personally been involved in many engaging, “lightbulb-inspiring” conversations with curious imbibers—scientist and nonscientist alike—over tasty (or flawed) beers. It is incredibly fun to share an “experiment” with someone who has never thought about the disciplined, technical process of making quality beer…or other foodstuffs, for that matter. Not to mention discovering the stunning array of flavors that certain combinations of a few simple ingredients and techniques can bring to the table.

So, to celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick’s Day, hopefully some of us can ally with nonbrewers to share the fruits of our investigations and start those conversations. It is a rewarding hobby that makes organic and biochemistry a lot less scary, and a lot more quaffable. So, as we say, “just relax, and have a homebrew!”

Charlie Fehl is currently a postdoc at the University of Oxford where he works, coincidentally, on carbohydrate biochemistry with Benjamin G. Davis. He is interested in chemical biology tool development for pharmaceutical and biomedical applications.