If you want to learn about beer, go to beer school. It’s how all education should work: you sharpen your pencils, you push up your glasses, and then you drink some beer—the knowledge will soak in if you stick with it long enough. This October I enrolled in Tap and Bottle’s third semester of Beer School, run by Ryan Placzek, Tap and Bottle’s bearded Assistant Manager and beer guru. The school ran the first four Mondays of October, and consisted of Placzek taking the students through four different styles of beer (one for each week), teaching the history, chemistry, brewing techniques, trends, and flavors along the way. If you’re a beer drinker and want to know what you’re drinking, I recommend getting a degree from Beer School. (Beer School doesn’t actually award degrees.)
On the first day of class the students were met with popcorn in a bowl, pencils in a glass, and Beer School composition notebooks at the ready. I sat at an age-and-class diverse table with two elder, white-haired, Arizona-skinned women, a lone 40-something lady, two young college-age fellows, and my drinking companion—a poet and contemplative sipper in a newsboy hat. In the first class we would be covering stouts. After we were poured, surprisingly, a porter, Rebecca Safford, owner of Tap and Bottle, asked the students to raise our glasses and toast, “Tempest Bebende,” Latin for “Time to Drink.” (Porter, we would learn, is sorta the same thing as a stout.)
“What do you think of when you think of stout?” Placzek asked the class, getting down to business.
One of the elder women shot her hand in the air: “Elizabeth Barret Browning’s doctor prescribed it to her when she was sick,” she dutifully reported. (Browning is the Victorian poet who asked, “How do I love thee?” and then counted the ways.) The poet next to me squirmed happily. We were asked to stick our noses into our snifters and sniff. (Coco powder? Lavender? Hints of char?) Stout, we learned, means strong.
We proceeded to drink seven approximately four ounce pours, with the conversation loosening (a lot) by the fifth snifter. While we were studious and scribbling notes during stouts 1 through 3, by the Ska Steel Toe Milk Stout (number 4) the chuckles deepened and the smiles broadened. Placzek told us, “There is a lot of enzymatic activity in the endosperm as grains are malting.” I underlined and starred the phrase in my comp book. At one point, at a table across the way, the giggles culminated into another toast of tempest bebende. Placzek poured us Anderson Valley’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, and, sipping seriously, said, “If the last beer was silk, this one is suede.”
In Week 2 we covered Beers with Wheat—mostly German beers. Week 3 was Rustic Ales—saisons, Belgians, and wild-fermented beers. I steadily filled up my composition notebook. We learned that proteins in beer lead to head, head leads to smell, smell leads to taste, which is why foamy beer is good beer. We learned that Russian Imperial Stouts were high in alcohol content so they could survive the long trips from England to Russia. We learned that the oldest food safety law still in effect is the Reheinsgeboot (say it with me now) a German law, enacted in 1516, specifying three, and only three, ingredients that can be used to produce beer: barley, hops, and water (they later amended yeast to the trio—once they figured out why the gunk at the bottom of the barrels was so important).
We also learned (the poet and I reveling in the linguistic fluency of beer) that the Vieille Provision, a quintessential Belgian saison, is “bone dry,” because “the yeast flocculates in a different manner in Belgian fermenters.” This is the beer that Placzek would take with him on a desert island. “It’s bitter,” he explained, “without being so assertively hoppy. It’s grassy, hoppy, dry and,” he paused, quaffing from his glass, “extremely quaffable.”
If there were chalkboards it might be a little too nerdy, but Professor Placzek kept his students heads filled with lapidary quips and our glasses filled with delicious beer. Just about everything Placzek said, along with observations from some of his astute students, seemed to make abundant sense in my mouth. Humble, chuckly, knowledgeable—really, a model for drinkers everywhere—Placzek clearly takes his job seriously: “My job is to serve and sell the beer as it’s intended to be served and sold,” he once said.
Tom Tobin, Beer School student, neuroscientist, and homebrewer, asked, “What’s that funk flavor?” He was asking about The Lost Abbey’s Red Barn Ale, brewed with grains of paradise (a relative of ginger), black peppercorn, and orange peel. It’s a tart beer with a weird, bready, funky finish. Proffesor Placzek answered: “It’s probably the Brettanomyces,” which is a type of wild yeast.
The one local beer we sampled was Public’s Saison Noir, which was the highlight of Class 3. It was a debittered wheat saison—a little smoky, surprisingly dark, and, according to Mike Gura, Public’s brewer and co-owner, “It doesn’t make you pucker too much.” Public used a dark Belgian candy sugar, which was slightly umamified by a Maillard reaction, rounding off the edge of the hops.
The 4th and last class focused on the beloved India Pale Ale, where we tasted classics such as Bell’s Two Hearted Pale Ale, what Placzek called a “baseline” IPA, dipped into another bone-dry, lower alcohol, session IPA (Founder’s All Day IPA) and then sampled a wet-hopped IPA, a double IPA, a West Coast style, a North West style, and a black IPA, and then capped off the class with Kneedeep’s Simtra Triple India Pale Ale, which felt like tasting an orchestra in your mouth—what Placzek called the pinnacle of the Americanization of a style: taking a fashion for hops and exploding it to Brobdingnagian proportions. The Simtra has 131 IBUs (International Bittering Units) and is 11 percent ABV, which is as strong as some wines. An orchestra, or maybe like a capgun shooting slightly flat champagne into my mouth (in a delicious way). It was the 7th beer of the night, the last beer of Beer School, and, after school was out, I tottered headily away, both inspired and armed with a newly awakened thirst.
The next semester of Beer School will be in February or March next year. Tap and Bottle’s first semester of Wine School starts Wednesday, November 2. Find more info and enroll here.