News & Features

Alcohol & Learning with Case Western Chemical Engineering PhD students

Welcome to the Alcohol & chats, where we ask questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.

Two teams of Case Western Reserve University chemical engineering PhD students recently walked away with a trio of top awards in a competition with dozens of other aspiring scientists — in brewing beer.

The Case Western Reserve teams won three of the seven categories at an annual conference of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChe). The institute’s fourth annual beer-making competition in Boston was sponsored by the AIChe’s Young Professional Committee.

The teams (The Brew Crew: Spooky Beers for Chemical Engineers; and Over the Hops CWRU Brewing) are really just casual group of about eight friends who happen to love both chemistry and beer.

Over the Hops CWRU Brewing won Best New Team and Most Efficient Brew (Will Dean, Bethany Kersten, Drace Penley and Rachel Beller) while the The Brew Crew won Best Poster (Maura Sepesy, Jacob Hostert, Marola Issa and Hairou Yu).

We chatted with several of them about the experience. (Brew Crew as with Maura)

Hops & Spirits: What was it like to compete in the AIChe Brewing Competition?
Brew Crew: The prep work for the competition was fun since we got to brew beer with friends, but the best part was seeing all the different kinds of beer everyone made at the competition. The thought put into a lot of the brews and teams that have been together for a longer time was really cool to see! Also trying the beers wasn’t so bad either.
Will & Bethany: Competing was a very fun experience, being able to get recognition for something that originally started as a casual hobby was really rewarding. It was was nice to see what other teams had made and how their brewing choices differed from ours.
Drace: It was a lot of fun to be able to go to a conference where we were presenting our technical research and have the opportunity to present on something that we do in our free time as well.

HS: How did each of you get into home brewing?
BC: My partner got a brewing kit from a relative so we made our first IPA then. Since then, we got to know the home brewing community around Cleveland, and when the opportunity came up for making beer for school purposes, my friends and I jumped at the chance. Others in our group took a mead making class that was offered to grad students through the grad student organization during the pandemic as an activity to do at home.  
W&B: We got into homebrewing during the start of the pandemic just looking for another activity to keep us sane. We have always liked exploring different craft beers so it fits very well.
D: I worked in a restaurant during my Masters Degree and had some friends who I brewed with. Then, when the pandemic started, we all began brewing together since we had some experience in the past and enjoyed going to breweries and were no longer able to.  

HS: What’s your favorite style or styles to brew?
BC: Personally, I really love sours and porters. Others on our team like fruit beers, ales, and sours too.
W&B: We like a lot of different styles, but IPAs are probably the favorite. The coolest one we have made so far was our Black IPA.
D: I am a big fan of making German wheat beers as they are also my favorite to drink.

HS: Winning awards for your work, how satisfying is that?
BC: Our beer we made was just ok (my team did not win best brew). But another fun experience was getting carried away with the theme of our brews and making it an experience for everyone. Science communication is very important to us, because you can do cool things but if you can’t explain it what’s the point. So when we won best poster we felt we accomplished that goal.
W&B: It was very satisfying, our team came home with two awards: highest brewing efficiency, and best new team. Hope to take home some more next year.
D: It was really cool to get recognized for something that we enjoyed doing outside of work. We of course thought that our beer was good, but being at the competition and hearing how much people really liked our beers was exciting.

HS: For those who might not understand how much science goes into brewing, how does your engineering background help?
BC: Funny enough the first I learned about brewing was through a hospitality class that was offered at my undergrad (RIT). You don’t need to be a scientist or an engineer to understand how the process works, but it definitely helps when it comes to improving the system and doing quality control.
W&B: Our chemical engineering background helps in our brew process because we understand all of the different processes involved such as extraction (extracting sugars, flavoring compounds from the hops, etc.), and chemical reactions (fermentation of sugar). But really beer brewing is such a popular hobby and really anyone could do it with a little work.
D: Brewing is a lot of biochemistry, so having the knowledge of how fermentation and extraction is very helpful, especially for creating hop schedules for beers with higher IBUs. However, I would say that people who don’t have this background should not be intimidated as there are fantastic resources for anyone interested in doing it themselves.

HS: Is this a hobby you’ll continue on with or even maybe go further with?
BC: Brewing and fermenting is definitely fun. Personally, I like to ferment things for cooking (kimchi, giardiniera, vinegar, etc), but since it’s about fruit time again we will also be making some mead and kombucha. I know others on our team will also be making more beer in the future, especially some lighter beers in time for the spring.
W&B: It is definitely something we plan to continue, we are hoping to open a craft brewery in the future.
D: Absolutely, now that we have so much experience in making different kinds of fermented drinks (beer, mead, wine, and seltzers), I imagine it will be a part of my life forever. We have definitely discussed the possibility of opening a brewery at some point, so we will see what the future holds.

HS: Anything else you’d like to add about the experience?
BC: Reaching out to the community around us really helped, especially The Cleveland Brew Shop. I just wanted to give them a shout out because the people who work there were so so helpful when we were buying supplies and helped us figure out what we needed to make our brews. 
D: I would just like to reiterate that even though we are trained on the technical aspects of brewing, that others at home who have any interest should definitely try it out. There are awesome local brewery stores in many cities as well as online distributors to help you get started. Once you have the basics down and feel comfortable with the process, the creative process really begins and you can make whatever you want!

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