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Crashed Course: BIS 402, The Cultural and Chemical History of Beer

Published: Friday, October 12, 2012

Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 17:10

Beer Class

Tiera Allen, College Times

It’s not even noon when students start piling in. They chain up their bikes and prop up their long boards, sling their backpacks down and take a seat. The professor is on his way so a couple of students reach for their notebooks, but most of them take out their IDs and start ordering beer.

There’s a guest speaker in BIS 402 – The Cultural and Chemical History of Beer – so class is being held at the bar Taste of Tops. ASU may be a dry campus but that certainly doesn’t mean students can’t enjoy a tasty brew while listening to guest lecturer George Hancock of Phoenix Ale Brewery.

The class is full of beer lovers and entrepreneurs who want to make beer their future. They are serious about learning the biochemistry of beer, and Professor Dave Conz is more than willing to teach it. Students are not encouraged nor required to drink alcohol as part of this course, but if you’re a beer lover you can steal a couple sips of your home-brewed extra credit.

“The class has exceeded my expectations,” said BIS senior Nick Keller. “I didn’t think you had to do anything.”

But Keller was quickly proven wrong. Even as an amateur brewer, Keller said he’s learned more than he ever thought he would.

Conz has taught The Cultural and Chemical History of Beer since fall 2010 and seats get filled faster than beer on draft. Conz said he takes one or two lucky non-major students a semester, but they usually have a real stake in the class.

Brewing and enjoying beer is a popular hobby, but it is also a booming industry.

Several of Conz’s students have gone on to start jobs at SanTan Brewing Company and Crescent Crown Distributing, one of the five largest beer distributors in the country.

“There’s a misperception that it’s not a legitimate class,” Conz said. “Obviously there are opportunities to drink, but when my colleagues looked at the content they realized that beer isn’t the low brow, Homer Simpson thing more people think it is. It’s an ancient, well-developed business tool.”

The idea for the course came after talking to a colleague about a trip Conz took to the Yuengling Brewery in Pennsylvania. As a sort of lark, he created a syllabus that combined his area of expertise with his passion for beer.

“I use to teach a course on science and technology studies, which talked about policy and different societal dimensions of technology such as the agricultural revolution, industrial revolution, healthcare, digital revolution,” Conz said.

The result is a dynamic and challenging class that requires students to not only engage with each other and the community but to leave text books behind and truly immerse themselves in the subject.

“All too often we are sequestered on campus or learning online,” Conz said. “Beer is inherently social and it’s such a burgeoning industry. It’s given me and the students the opportunity to meet people locally and learn directly from the experts.”

Part of the class requires students to go out and experience beer events such as New Belgium Brewing Company’s Tour De Fat or Tempe’s Oktoberfest. Students can also brew their own beer to incorporate all that they’ve learned. The class is tangible rather than theoretical and abstract.

The class at Taste of Tops is casual and informative. Hancock of Phoenix Ale Brewery tells stories of brewing business and incorporates Greg Eccles, Taste of Tops’ owner and certified cicerone (i.e. beer badass), as often as he can.

Students get to ask questions, order more beers and soak in as much knowledge as possible. The next off-campus class had students making President Obama’s White House Honey Ale at Brewer’s Connection on University Drive.

Conz hopes his course can build a foundation for his students and their future beer or business endeavors.

“It’s fun but serious – seriously fun,” he said.


-----THE DETAILS----

Professor: Dave Conz,

Prerequisites: Interdisciplinary Studies student; Minimum 2.0 GPA; BIS 301 with C or better; BIS 302 with C or better

Difficulty: Challenging

Course Description: “This interdisciplinary course traces the development of beer from ancient cultures to the multinational mega-corporations and craft homebrewers of today. We will examine the social, cultural, legal, biochemical, physiological and business dimensions of beer throughout history while integrating students’ areas of concentration. The class will feature expert guest lecturers, field trips to local breweries, and an optional hands-on, at-home (off-campus) “lab” component where students will have the opportunity to make, bottle, analyze and sample their own batches of beer (off-campus).”

Sample of reading:

Palmer, John. (2006). “How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time” available free at

Oliver, Garrett. (2005). “The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food”

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