Beer sipped, not guzzled

By Will Scheff

If beer brewing was rocket science, Tony Knipling and Mark Benson could build their own… If beer brewing was rocket science, Tony Knipling and Mark Benson could build their own space shuttle.

The two experienced home brewers and beer judges imparted some of their knowledge, as well as samples of specialty beers, to Pitt students in the William Pitt Union on Wednesday night at a beer-tasting seminar sponsored by the Pitt Program Council.

“I’m here to show them that there’s more to beer than just American light lager,” Knipling said, referring to the popular beers seen on TV commercials. “There’s a whole realm out there. My analogy is: McDonald’s is everywhere, but very few people would say, ‘That’s the best hamburger I’ve ever tasted.'”

Stefanie Odett, the event organizer and leisure-learning director, bustled about before the presentation, preparing programs and plastic cups filled with fresh hops and malted barley for the participants.

“I don’t know if students come for the free beer, or if they really want to learn,” Odett said.

All of the students seemed interested, as they delicately sipped samples of the gold, amber, dark and specialty beers under the ornate chandeliers of the Union’s stately ballroom. They listened attentively as Knipling and Benson gave an intricate account of the history and process of beer brewing after a brief warning from student health services about the perils of drinking and the importance of drinking only if one is of legal age.

Each student also received bread and a bottle of Aquafina to cleanse their palates between beers, as well as a plastic bucket for any brew that they found particularly distasteful. But senior Mike Hamidi said that he wouldn’t need his.

“I’m not going to spit any out,” he said.

Having just finished an exam, Hamidi was ready to unwind. While leisurely tasting brews such as Perkuno’s Hammer Imperial Porter and Hacker-Pschorr, one of the original Oktoberfest beers, he became fascinated as Knipling detailed the rich history of beer.

“Beer precedes wine,” Knipling said, as he described how it probably originated when grain was left out in the rain before being eaten by ancient cultures that discovered the resulting “gruel” caused a pleasant sensation. He said the earliest known beer “recipes” were found on Sumerian clay tablets dating back to 1800 B.C.

He went on to detail how scientists have recently replicated a beer from the oldest known beer residue found on a clay pot unearthed from King Midas’ tomb in Turkey about 20 years ago.

That beer is known as Midas Touch and is sold by the Dogfish Head Brewery, whose 60 Minute IPA, an unfiltered India pale ale, was available at the seminar.

Hamidi said he was also interested by how the word “cash” is derived from the ancient Egyptians, who used a similar word for beer, which they used as currency.

The slaves who built the pyramids were sustained, in part, by eating beer porridge.

Many other cultures used beer as food, Knipling said. While they were fasting, monks still drank beer that they brewed themselves, which they called “liquid bread.” Knipling used such stories to demonstrate how European and other older cultures have a deeper respect for beer than Americans.

But that’s changing, he added, now that “Americans are making the best beers in the world. American ingenuity is pushing the envelope.”

The advent of microbreweries has made it possible for this ingenuity to be noticed, under the shade of more popular beers such as the ones seen on commercials, which Knipling finds inferior because of their use of corn, a cheaper substitute for hops and barley, in the brewing process.

“Prohibition ruined the value of American beers,” Knipling said. “When it ended in 1933, everybody scrambled to make beer as fast as they could.”

America’s mainstream beer culture never recovered from that “cheapness,” he added.

Students asked Knipling questions as they passed around fresh sprigs of hops only an hour off the vine. One girl screwed up her face at the taste of He’Brew Genesis Ale, made by the Schmaltz Brewing Company, although her friend seemed pleasantly surprised by it.

“I don’t expect them to like all of the beers,” Knipling said. “I’m trying to give them a wide range of tastes,” such as the banana and citrus-flavored Moonglow Weizenbock and Troeg’s Oatmeal Stout from Pennsylvania and Rycerskie Strong, made by Poland’s oldest brewery.

Pitt senior Tanya McGregor appreciated the diversity of the beers.

“You never really get the opportunity to try something new like that – you’ll just go to the bar and drink Yuengling and Miller Lite,” she said. McGregor asked about the availability of her favorite beer of the night, Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale, made by the Portland Brewing Company, as she was enamored by its pumpkin-pie taste.

“We’ll go to Mellinger’s tomorrow,” her friend, senior Jackie Kraft, said.

Both Knipling and Benson are former presidents of TRASH (Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Home-brewers.) Benson has been home-brewing since 1983.

“There were no microbreweries back then,” Benson said. “The only way to get good beer was to make your own.”

Both Benson and Knipling agree that a good beer deserves the same treatment as a fine wine, and that it’s something to be savored and appreciated.

“It’s important to know the positive aspects of beer drinking,” Benson said. “It’s not just guzzling.”

Knipling did have a message for those students old enough to drink.

“What I try to impart is to drink less and to drink better quality beer,” he said.