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Simplified Chemistry for Brewers - Brew Chem 101

Chemistry Class is one of my enduring memories from those youthful days of secondary school education. We sat at long tables of age-darkened oak, rather than at gnarly desks assaulted with the etched markings of pride and prejudice. Theory had it that the Periodic Table of Elements would be easier to view and the chemical chains that Miss Reactor scribbled would be more impressive if we were treated like adults. We could also group, more easily, in teams of three and four for lab work. In reality, we were more interested in the gold chains Sal wore on his chest and in the daily mischief our illustrious class comedian Albie was about to drop on Miss Reactor. The “team layout” made it easier to torpedo the best laid syllabus, riddling it with whatever creative chemistry we could devise that would cause an eruption. One thing we knew: Miss Reactor was a mis-reactor. She once slammed a book on the podium and screamed, “Damn you kids! I’m not teaching you anymore!” and turned her back on her unwieldly charges, as we rollicked in laughter at her lack of poise.

Too bad she never taught us about the practical application of all those chemical chains – about the relationship between detergents and grass stains, dyes for our hair, the bonding properties of acrylic paints and oils, or the “Chemistry of Beer.” Many years later, as I sat in my Beer Judge Certification Class learning about glucose, fructose and raffinose, or about chlorophenols, dimethyl sulfide and oxidation, a feeling of panic began to rise. What is this ion stuff? If only I had foreseen how important chemistry would become in my life, my attitude toward the scientific curriculum of my salad days would have been different.

Fortunately, one of my BJCP classmates, a water analyst for the EPA, listened to me express frustration at my own total lack of comprehension. He recommended a book, “Brew Chem 101 - The Basics of Homebrewing Chemistry,” written by Lee W. Janson, M.D., Ph.D., published by Storey Books. This is not an intimidating textbook from the halls of academia, but a friendly guide for those of us who need a foundation to support our new-found knowledge of brewing science. In straightforward language, Dr. Janson spoon-feeds the reader with useful information.

He describes the “real” differences between organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry. Janson elegantly discusses “charged atoms…collectively referred to as ions,” the dissolving characteristics of water, hydrophobic molecules, and isomerization (described simply as a “change to a molecule with some partial charges that can, therefore, dissolve.”) His idea of chemistry lessons allows the reader to impale herself on an idea in a matter of minutes, and climb the necessary steps to the temple of knowledge.

The Table of Contents presents brewing in a methodical relay, while each topic is covered simply, yet thoroughly. Besides his acknowledgment and intro, recommended further reading, and glossary, Janson covers:

  1. The Basic Chemistry of Brewing
  2. The Biochemistry of Beer
  3. Yeast and Fermentation
  4. Mashing and Sparging
  5. Understanding and Avoiding Off Flavors
  6. Evaluating Beer
Nothing significant is skipped; yet, the gentle immersion into the whys and hows of chemical reactivity are well laid out.

For more information:
Brew Chem 101: The Basics of Homebrewing Chemistry

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Content copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Smagalski. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Carolyn Smagalski. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Carolyn Smagalski for details.


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