Mash, TRASH and Pittsburgh’s homebrewing community


Image courtesy of Bob Parker

Bob Parker, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and the associate dean for graduate education, teaches a brewing class in 2017.

By Brandon Raglow, Staff Writer

For many, the processes that result in the Miller Lite appearing in their red solo cups are as cryptic and confusing as a witch brewing a potion in a cauldron. But Bob Parker said the process can be simplified to a few steps.

“To begin really flippantly, it’s an afternoon of work, two or three weeks of waiting, and then a couple hours of work and then some more waiting and then you have beer,” Parker, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, said.

Parker, who’s also associate dean for graduate education, has taught a class on brewing beer for students 21 and older every spring semester since 2017. The class is a popular selection for engineering students, and some take the lessons from the course and continue homebrewing after graduating, even creating their own businesses.

He said that over time, “Science, Technology, and Culture of Craft Brewing” has shifted its focus from strictly science to include lessons on the cultural aspects of brewing. 

“The first couple years, we really focused on the technology and the process of brewing. This is the first year that we’ve opened it up to all of campus, and we’ve expanded it to be science, technology and culture,” Parker said. We want to make sure we cover the cultural aspects because that’s a significant fraction of what the craft beer movement is.”

Parker said the home brewing process begins by boiling grains to extract the sugars inside to create a mash. Next, he said yeast is added to the leftover liquid, known as wort, and the mixture is put into an airtight container — which for Parker is a six-gallon bucket — to ferment. After this, different additives can be mixed in to control the flavor and type of beer.

Parker has been homebrewing for 22 years, and he began by brewing with a friend, Jim Schneider, another engineering professor at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. Parker said they first made a brew using a kit from Schneider’s sister. 

Parker said while he liked homebrewing, and kept at it with Schneider, it took him a while to really go all in.

“And at that point, I won’t say I was hooked there, but we brewed a bunch for the next couple of years. And then we both focused on tenure and getting what we needed out of this job,” Parker said. “My wife, shortly after that, looked at me and said, ‘You need a hobby.’ And I have been a homebrewer ever since.”

Parker has since combined his work and his hobby in more than one way, entering a brewing competition hosted by The American Institute of Chemical Engineers in 2018 with Schnieder and one of his former Ph.D. students, Michelle Pressly, where they won best in show.

One of Parker’s students, senior chemical engineering major Mike Kane, said taking the class has become a tradition for senior engineers.

“This is the class you can kind of get to take as a senior, it’s just a fun way to end your senior year,” Kane said. “It’s kind of like a kick-back class that’s still intensive.”

Kane said he’s interested in starting homebrewing, but is holding off until he finishes the class. He said it feels like a practical application of a lot of the concepts he’s learned in his engineering classes.

“When you’re learning about chemical engineering, you see this gigantic process plant, and it’s like, OK, you can’t really ever make that in your backyard,” Kane said. “But it’s not that hard to make your own homebrewing area in your backyard.”

Teddy Valinski, a former student of Parker’s, has taken his hobby to the next step. 

Valinski graduated from Pitt in 2018, and in October 2021 he opened Walking Distance Brewing Company in Marysville, Ohio. Valinski, who works full time as an electrical engineer, said Parker’s class and the resulting homebrewing hobby influenced his decision to start his own brewery. 

“Dr. Parker did a great job about introducing us to brewery owners, and probably the most influential one was Couch Brewery,” Valinski said. “Just that they were moonlighting it, and I realized I could work a full-time job and then open up a brewery on the side. And then hopefully, eventually transition to just doing the brewery.”

For those who can’t take Parker’s class, there are other resources in Pittsburgh for learning about homebrewing. Kerry Diehl is the former president of The Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers. Organizations like TRASH and The Three Rivers Underground Brewers serve as educational forums for newcomers, testing grounds for veterans trying new recipes and social groups for people with a shared interest. 

Diehl said many basic questions about ingredients and the physical process can get answered pretty easily. 

“The questions that are sort of more fundamental are, ‘Is my beer a good beer or a bad beer?’ because amazingly enough, people have difficulty judging the quality of their own beer sometimes,” Diehl said. “And the others are, you know, ‘What are my possibilities and opportunities in brewing beer?’”

Diehl said a lot of people from various backgrounds homebrew, and different parts of the process come more easily to some. Diehl said working with a group means that everyone can contribute and advise in their own way.

“When I had my first coloring book, I had to learn to color between the lines before and it really helped me being able to draw my own pictures. Beer is like that,” Diehl said. “You’ll find people from all walks of life doing this. The engineers need assistance in choosing colors. The artists need instruction that there are lines and here’s how you color inside the lines.” 

According to Diehl, one of the most popular types of beer covers only a tiny percentage of the range and variety of beers available.

“If you go to any microbreweries, you get your choice of one of 32 different styles of hazy IPA [India pale ale],” Diehl said. “But literally, from an evaluative point of view, there are probably 135 beer styles that are commonly accepted across the world. OK? And the IPAs that you see that are so popular cover about three of them.”

While Diehl said he likes IPAs and even makes a few himself because “people always drink it,” one benefit of homebrewing is the opportunity to make new beers that he might not otherwise be able to try.

“In my kegerator downstairs, I have a barley wine in it, which is an old English-style beer. I have a pilsner, which is a German-style beer. I have a Belgian tripel, which is a style that I know exactly one small brewery in Pittsburgh where you could get one of them,” Diehl said. “And the fourth one is a German smoked beer called a rauchbier, which you can buy in bottles in a couple of places in Pittsburgh, if you’re lucky.”

Audrey Christiano, another student in Parker’s class, said she likes homebrewing for the experience of making something herself.

“And there’s the alcohol,” Christiano, a senior chemical engineering major, said. “You know, it’s fun. If we’re gonna drink it, we might as well make it ourselves.”

She also pointed out one way that homebrewing is a nice departure from some of the other projects chemical engineers work on.

“Also, it’s super safe. So you get to play with it,” Christiano said. “Like, everything else we learn in chemical engineering it’s like, ‘This could blow up and we die.’ The worst that’s going to happen is that it tastes bad.”