By Beth Ann Downey
With new and old courses alike, students at Juniata College, Huntingdon, have the opportunity to study the science behind
what you might find behind the bar.
Classes like Wine Chemistry and The Art and Science of Brewing are popular special topic courses offered to both science majors and non-majors, and introduce of-age students to hands-on projects, new hobbies and possible careers.
Several Thursday afternoons throughout the semester on the outskirts of campus, the students in chemistry professor Peter Baran's Wine Chemistry class can by found working amongst the 10 rows and 177 grapevines in their very own, self-made vineyard.
Baran started the class before setting up the vineyard in the fall of 2009, when it was offered as a one-credit course that only ran for a third of the semester.
Baran said he was "surprised" by the course's initial popularity.
"I made a list of 13 [special topic] courses for students and sent them the list and asked them which course they wanted to take next fall," he said. "One of them was Wine Chemistry, and the students went after that."
Then, Baran got the idea to incorporate growing their own grapes into the coursework. As a native of the area of Slovakia considered "wine country," Baran said he grew up working on a small vineyard his parents owned and learned a lot about winemaking through observation.
"In small towns and villages, people have gardens and almost everybody would be growing some grapes and making wine for their consumption," he said. "So that's how I learned it."
Baran asked Juniata's president about starting the vineyard, and was again surprised when his request was heeded. The vineyard was installed in Spring 2010 with money allotted by the presidential council.
"I thought it was a crazy idea, and that they would never let allow me to do anything like that here," Baran said.
Now, two years later, the vineyard has five varieties of red and white Concord grape vines that will bloom in a few weeks.
Baran's class of five students this semester also recently planted bits of red currant and blueberry to use as accent flavors for their wines.
When they're not out in the vineyard, the students have lectures every Tuesday, and also spend time in the brewing lab making small batches of wine.
Baran said they cover topics like where aroma and taste comes from, chemistry of the fermentation process, the aging process and how oxidation can go bad. But what most students like about taking the course is the hands-on work and the unique approach to science.
"I like how we're not just stuck in the lab all the time," said Christina Randall, 22, a senior chemistry major originally from Middletown, Md. "We get to go out and do stuff."
Randall added that she enjoyed the class field trip to the Finger Lakes Winery in upstate New York where they took a tour of the processing area.
Michael Zeleny, 21, a senior biology major originally from Pittsburgh, said learning about food chemistry and food science in the class, along with an internship he had with a food testing business, may help in his career in the health profession.
"I just thought it'd be interesting to learn about the winemaking process," he said of his initial decision to take the class. "I do enjoy being outside sometimes when the weather holds up, so that was a plus."
Biology professor Jeff Demarest, who took over the Art and Science of Brewing last year, said a handful of students have applied what they learned in class to their careers.
"The craft brewing industry is just mushrooming," he said. "There are lots and lots of jobs available in the brewing industry, so for someone with a basic background in the brewing process or in science and engineering, it's the potential root to a career."
Demarest was a home brewer for many years before taking a two-month professional brewing course in California in order to qualify to teach the course. When he took the class over, Demarest expanded it from seven to eight students to allow a maximum of 21 to take it each semester.
"Let's put it this way, it fills up early every year and there's a waiting list," Demarest said.
But the brewing class isn't all fun and tastings. The students have learned to make beer three different ways and do things like microscopically count the number of yeast cells needed to start the yeast process for certain brews and do water analyses to learn the quality and quantity of mineral deposits that create the difference between pilsners and ales.
When the students are sampling, it's in the name of science to test for quality control, to learn the chemistry behind flavors and aromas and to educate their palettes.
Demarest said he's happy the class can provide a unique and fun way to approach learning.
"It's applied science," he said. "This is what you can use fundamental things you learned in biology and chemistry in what could become a hobby or a career."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.