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Knowledge brewing in new chemistry course

For Christopher Martin, an associate professor of chemistry at Lamar University for 10 years, an enthusiasm for beer brewing stemmed from a Father’s Day gift a year and a half ago.

“I asked for a Mr. Beer, a small home brewing system, because it was something that I had been interested in,” Martin said. “As a chemist, I think about chemistry in everything I do. Even when I got my first simplified kit, I was trying to read in between the lines and trying to figure out what was happening.”

Christopher MartinSoon after, Martin began to home brew without the assistance of the kit, thinking not only as a chemist but as a teacher.

“Whether I was intending to or not, I was building a course,” Martin said. “I was organizing my thoughts, organizing the steps, trying to solve the questions about how I would explain this to somebody else. Not only do I want to figure out everything, I am always unintentionally thinking about how to present that to somebody else so they can understand.”  

Since then, Martin’s passion has inspired the creation of the class, the Chemistry of Brewing, which became available in the spring of 2014.

“I wanted to start the course, but I was not sure if there would be interest,” Martin said. “The courses that I teach, Organic Chemistry I and II, are traditionally some of the most difficult courses at the university, which a lot of times labels me as the difficult professor. I didn’t know how much of that was going to roll over into this class.”

Martin said it was a natural transition from the brewery to the classroom, the only difference being that he needed to have students and formalize the material.

“When I had some curiosities, I would take notes in a laboratory notebook,” Martin said. “I used the notebook to keep track of my mistakes and triumphs, but it ended up becoming the foundation for my course curriculum. A lot of the things I’m trying to teach students in the lab are skills that have been easily transferrable because now my kitchen is the lab.”

Before establishing the course, Martin was unsure of how people would perceive the topic of alcohol on a college campus.

“I am very sensitive to the concept of underage drinking and alcoholism, and I wanted to assert that the class would not be endorsing either. Instead, we would be concentrating on the chemistry that is involved in brewing,” Martin said. “Beer is a measuring stick of culture. In class, I try to make sure that people understand the history, the cultural significance, and the overall process of what it takes to brew a batch of beer. It becomes a task or a chore if you jump into the chemistry right away, and you risk losing the passion.”

However, Martin said thus far he has been pleased with the positive feedback received, and he is interested in teaching the class as long as there is sufficient student interest and departmental resources.

Christopher Martin“It is encouraging that the 25 students in my class, a fair mixture of chemistry and chemical engineering majors, chose to take the lecture-based course despite it not being a required class,” Martin said.

Currently, the course is offered to any student who needs an upper-level chemistry elective. For undergraduates, Organic Chemistry I is a prerequisite. Graduate students in a chemical science also can take the course.

This semester is the first time the Chemistry of Brewing has been taught at Lamar. A Fermentation Chemistry class previously was offered in 2007 by chemistry professor Richard Lumpkin, covering the process of brewing chocolate, coffee and beer.

“The students are going to have a fair amount of hands on, non-alcoholic opportunities in class,” said Martin. “Soon, I’m going to bring in the individual components, such as the grain, that go into the beer. Personally, I don’t think you can appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of deliberately putting all the flavors together to arrive at this final product without looking at the individual parts behind it.”

Because there is no lab, Martin said that the class has the option to participate in several volunteer-based fields trips throughout the semester.

“This is an elective course so I have the ability to keep them engaged instead of worrying about establishing prerequisites for a specific level of achievement and retention,” said Martin.  

In the future, Martin hopes to expand the course.

“My idea is to have this lecture only class first, and then justify turning this into a lecture plus lab, where students could truly integrate chemistry with brewing, using the brewing as a vehicle to apply the chemistry,” said Martin. “If enough interest is generated, I would consider offering other related courses such as an ‘Introduction to Brewing Science’ with much lower prerequisites, possibly none, and an ‘Advanced Chemistry of Brewing’ with the current course as the prerequisite.

Martin hopes to delve into further research that marries his two passions: brewing and teaching.

“One of the things that would be fascinating is to develop a research program where students can take their chemistry knowledge and use practical application to discover limits and new approaches,” said Martin. “The research itself would not be centered on the alcohol, but the chemistry in it.

“Because you cannot patent a recipe, the breweries protect their knowledge very tightly, which has led to incredibly sparse peer-reviewed chemistry literature on brewing. A possibility for research is to branch into some of the scientific aspects of why certain chemical phenomenon happen that people don’t quite understand. There is a lot more to look at and investigate than I initially thought.”

At the end of the course, Martin hopes that students see the connection between the real world and the classroom.

“Rather than being driven by chemistry in an academic sense, I’m trying to find an application in the real world. It makes the relevance and interest a lot fresher,” Martin said.