Beer school students are serious about suds


Chicago--This should be said straight off: Beer school is not all fun and games. You cannot major in Heineken. You cannot minor in pretzels.

It is not frat boy nirvana, where attendance at keggers counts toward your final grade, nor is it a poorly disguised brewers' convention, where men with mustaches compare beer bellies between belches.

Beer school, officially known as the United States Brewers' Academy, can make your head swim, but not in the manner generally associated with less studious immersion in alcohol.

The 50-minute lectures, conducted in the second-floor classrooms of a squat Northwest Side building, bear such sobering titles as Deep Tank Technology, Adjuncts & Adjunct Brewing, Aseptic Filtration, and Colloidal Stability/Instability 1 and 2.

This is not material you assimilate while peeling the labels off of bottles of Miller Lite. The academy's students, men and women who come from as far away as New Zealand and from some of this continent's largest brewers, already know their malts from their hops.

They enrolled in the recent two-week Annual Short Course in Brewing to see what's new in Yeast Propagation or Wort Cooling & Aeration, and for the latest in Low & Non-Alcoholic Beer.

This year's course prospectus also included field trips to the Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee and to Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, as well as a Round the World Beer Tasting Evening. For, just as a fine chef must sample his sauce, a brewer needs to sip his suds.

"We tend to think of beer as an uncomplex beverage, but in fact it's extremely complex," said David Ryder, 42, course director and vice president of technical services for J. E. Siebel Sons' Co., which counts the academy among its beer-related enterprises.

"When you consider that it's made by biological materials that are fermented by microorganisms, there's all sorts of things which can go wrong. The more we know about beer the more complex it becomes, just like any other subject."

Mr. Ryder, who holds a doctorate in brewing yeast physiology from Institut des Industries de Fermentation, Belgium, and has brewed beer in Belgium, Africa and Scandinavia, was sipping a Killian's Red from a small glass in the school library.

The beer was poured from the tap in the school's bierstube, a converted cafeteria dubbed the Siebel Alumni Room, where students can quench their thirst (soda pop and water are also available), or play foosball between classes.

"We're always talking beers. For example, beer foam -- you can talk for hours on the beer foam bubbles, and what composes the bubbles and how to maximize foam in a beer."

The J. E. Siebel Memorial Library is a tribute to John Ewald Siebel, a German immigrant who was the City of Chicago's chief chemist and founded his own company in 1872 to provide scientific and lab services to brewers, soda pop manufacturers and bakers. Siebel called it the First Western Scientific Station for Brewing.

TC Making beer back then was "more art than science," said William R. Siebel, J. E.'s great-grandson and now executive vice president of J. E. Siebel Sons' Co. "He was bringing some scientific principles to it."

J. E. Siebel died in 1919, at the onset of Prohibition. "I think he just gave up the ghost then," William Siebel said.

The Siebel family survived the dry years by emphasizing their expertise in baking and carbonated beverages. Beer, though, has always been the family's meal ticket.

William, 44, and his brother, Ronald, 48, president of Siebel Sons', are more businessmen than scientists. But the company is still engaged in brewing research and the marketing of beer-processing aids. The brothers now oversee three brewing courses.

A 10-week course called Brewing Technology, part of the Siebel Institute of Technology, is a more detailed version of the Short Course in Brewing. Tuition is $6,100.

Every January the Siebel Institute also holds a two-week Brewing Microbiology and Microscopy course. The Short Course in Brewing is presented under the logo of the United States Brewers' Academy, the same name it had when it was operated by a now-defunct East Coast competitor. The back-to-back courses cost $1,750 each.

Similar classes can be found in Europe and at several U.S. colleges, but the Siebel courses are well-known, and highly regarded, throughout the world.

On the walls of the second-floor hallway hang class photos that include the faces of John W. Stroh Jr. (1959), August A. Busch III (1961) and August Pabst (1967).

Among this year's 44 students were John W. Stroh Jr.'s son, John W. III, who is on the board of directors of Stroh Brewery Co., Detroit, and John III's cousin, Suzanne Sadlier Stroh, listed as a Stroh Brewery stockholder on the class roster.

Other students were from the laboratories, plant floors and quality-control divisions of Miller Brewing Co.; Coors Brewing Co.; Moosehead Breweries, Canada; Commonwealth Brewery Ltd., the Bahamas; New Zealand Brewing Co.; Power Brewing Co., Australia; and Huizhou Brewing Co., China. From Connecticut, New York and Texas came microbrewers, people who are making beer in small quantities and distributing it locally.

Mr. Ryder, who oversees all three courses for Siebel Sons, said he believes that by generating enthusiasm for the subject matter, he not only keeps his students awake but ferments a lifelong dedication to better brewing.

"Frankly, [beer is] a very social drink, and if drunk in moderation it's a very good drink," Mr. Ryder said.

He was about to return to the bierstube, decorated with beer signs, a mounted muskie, a mounted mountain goat head and two mounted deer heads, for the Round the World Beer Tasting Evening.

The students had just finished watching a video about specialty beers on one of two bierstube TVs.

"What we have for you this evening is a very exciting evening," Mr. Ryder told them, introducing the beverages: beer with cherries and a corked top; the first-ever dry beer (from Japan); beer with cinnamon, orange peels and lots of yeast ("a very special beer, that"); beer with high alcohol content ("it has a super reputation for headaches"); and beer with an abundance of hops ("it's very, very special in terms of hops").

Buses had been arranged to take the students to their hotels after the tasting, and beer was poured into plastic tasting cups that held small quantities. But the social aspects of the drinking were not diluted, and pretty soon the alumni room was filled with conversational murmur and the hearty laughter of a pub.

The final beer of the evening was actually a little inside brewers' joke: a French beer, La Biere Amoureuse, marketed as an aphrodisiac and sold in a container that looked, as one student put it, like a bottle of cheap cologne.

All seemed to agree the beer was very special in that it was quite horrid.

Suzanne Stroh liked the bottle and left class with an empty as a memento of the brewers' academy. Like the other students, she would later get a certificate of attendance from the academy.

She had taken the course to get a quick education in the family business and now, she said, had learned "just enough to become dangerous."

And just enough to come to this conclusion:

"It's a life's work, beer."

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