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Dalhousie professor turns students into craft brewers

The hands-on brewing course was a unique opportunity for students amid the pandemic.


It was bottoms up for 15 students at Dalhousie University last November when they gathered to sample five different types of beer they had developed during their process engineering and applied science course: “Brewing Science.” In it, students learned the intricacies of brewing, fermentation, maturation and packaging of beer production.

Taught by Gianfranco Mazzanti, associate professor of process engineering and applied science, the course offered hands-on experience for students, who got the opportunity to use the faculty of engineering’s TUNS Brewery on Dalhousie’s Sexton campus. Dr. Mazzanti, who has a background in food science and food engineering, agreed to teach under the condition that he could make use of the brewery as a learning environment – which had never been done before.

“The department was kind of skeptical that we would be able to pull this off,” said Dr. Mazzanti. “But I have a lot of experience with industrial equipment and plants, so I had faith in it.”

Each group of students was tasked with producing 200-litres of beer and were given control of the microbrewery for three full days throughout the semester. At first the students experimented by using only water, but the course gave them a chance to learn the unique characteristics of the various ingredients that go into beer – like malt, hops, barley, and wart – and the impact they have on flavour.

Dr. Mazzanti, who had never brewed beer before, worked closely with senior educational developer Tereigh Ewert to design the novel course, which brought in elements of the Universal Design for Learning framework to create an experiential learning experience in a dynamic and fun environment. He also relied on the expertise of Lorne Romano, a well-known brewing expert from Nova Scotia’s microbrewery scene who provided demonstrations for students and helped them channel the artistry of the craft.

“At the beginning [the students] were a bit scared,” says Dr. Mazzanti. “They had been helping Lorne, so they had an idea of how to do it, but when they really did it themselves, they started coming out of their shells.”

The students were also provided with kits to make a home-brew batch of 20 liters. By the end of the term, they had successfully made five types of ale including cream ale, dark ale, a stout, and a Belgian wheat beer. “It was a great opportunity for them,” says Dr. Mazzanti.

An opportunity, no doubt, made more meaningful after spending much of the previous semesters confined behind a computer screen. When asked what it was like to reconnect with his students in-person, Mr. Mazzanti let out an audible sigh.

“It was absolutely awesome. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It was so great to see them eye-to-eye and not be speaking to a screen,” he says. “Being able to talk to them, to ask questions, to get feedback and they can ask questions and make mistakes. Getting splashed with yeast and wort and sugar… that creates a kind of bond.”

The course will return in-person next fall semester, and Dr. Mazzanti says he is grateful to have developed an admiration for Nova Scotia’s brewing industry.

“It was great for me to meet so many people from the microbrewing industry,” he says. “It gave me a new appreciation for the business they do, the interest they have in the community and the jobs and opportunities they provide.”

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