The Chemistry of Brewing: A Student Perspective

Associate Professor of Chemistry James Keller (via

Kenyon students are no strangers to unique academic experiences. It’s surprisingly easy to come across a course description that makes you scratch your head a little bit while perusing the searchable schedule, and we’ve all heard zany stories through the grapevine. Today, we bring you an inside look at a very unique independent study course in the Chemistry department (restricted to seniors, of course) entitled “Chemistry of Brewing” and taught by Associate Professor of Chemistry James Keller. Sure, the notion of gathering a group of seniors and focusing on beer calls to mind some not quite so educational and productive scenarios, but don’t be too quick to judge this class by its content. I got a chance to chat with Tamsin McDonagh ’15 and Kevin Pan ’15 about their experiences taking the course and found there is more to it than meets the eye.

As far as logistics, both Pan and McDonagh noted the size of the 20 student class, which is the largest enrollment it has ever had. Despite the relaxed atmosphere lent by the Friday afternoon meeting time, the class isn’t just drinking beer. For the first of the two hour class period, a presentation is given on a specific type of beer or brewing process. As McDonagh mentioned, if they “talk about the brewing process, [they] discuss practical aspects of brewing as well as the chemical processes behind them.” The class is, after all, a 400-level Chemistry class.

After the hour of presentation concludes, the second hour of tasting begins, where students are treated to different styles of beer to familiarize themselves with the information they’ve been learning. Pan explained that, so far, the class has covered “the differences between pale ales and IPAs and a little background into them”. Professor Keller has also given valuable context through stories of his origins in brewing beer and wine. Future topics will include fermentation, beer history, and more information on different styles of beer. At some point later in the semester, there will be two “practicums”, during which students are expected to brew a beer of their choice.

I’m glad to have the opportunity to take this class and I really appreciate the chemistry department throwing us science nerds such a fun class after having worked through so many more strenuous labs.

– Tamsin McDonagh ’15

When it came to reasons for taking the class, Pan noted its good reputation. “I decided to take the class because I’ve had friends who’ve graduated before me who’ve taken it and loved it.” McDonagh expressed similar sentiments, and added that the class would allow her to expand her knowledge about a beverage that she enjoys, but currently knows little about.

The science courses I’ve taken have been pretty demanding over the past 3 years, so it’s nice to have a class where you can relax with your peers. I know a lot of the students in the class, so the dynamic is one of where everyone just wants to hang out with each other.

– Kevin Pan ’15

As its core, this class is a way for Chemistry seniors to apply the knowledge they’ve accumulated in a relevant and relaxed context. Professor Keller is knowledgeable about the subject and brings a passion and excitement to the content that definitely inspires the students involved. For even more information regarding Keller’s Chemistry of Brewing, check out his feature in the alumni bulletin.

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