When Ezra Cornell declared he would “found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” he may not have considered one subject in particular: beer brewing.
But for Prof. Karl Siebert, food science, studying beer is all in a day’s work. Siebert, who spent 18 years working in the brewing industry before entering academia, has spent decades researching the golden, frothy beverage in his laboratory at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.
“If you search Cornell’s website for two different things — that is, brewing and chemometrics [the analysis of chemical data] — you’ll find I’m the only Cornell faculty member who admits to studying either one of those,” Siebert quipped.
As the self-proclaimed “beer guy” at Cornell, Siebert has studied beer with a level of detail most casual drinkers have never approached: asking how the linking of proteins and polyphenols linking together creates the hazy or foamy appearance in beer and wine. He has also taught countless beer enthusiasts — both professional and amateur — about the brewing process in his “Brewing Science and Technology” workshop, which recently sold out seats for the largest auditorium at the experiment station in Geneva.
Years ago, when he was pursuing his undergraduate and graduate degrees in biochemistry, Siebert “had no clue” he would end up studying beer for a living, he said.
“I wasn’t at all thinking about food science or brewing. I was just looking for a job, and the opportunity came along,” he said.
That opportunity took him to Stroh Brewery Company in 1971 — which, in 2000, was bought by Pabst Brewing Company, the group of Pabst Blue Ribbon fame. At Stroh, Siebert spent 18 years working on research and development, juggling disciplines such as chemistry, microbiology and sensory science at a job that, he said, looking back, was significantly different from conducting academic research.
“A lot of people in academia are very much specialists in one very narrow sub-discipline. But in the industry, you work along the product line, or on whatever the company needs,” Siebert said. “No company can afford to have one expert on staff for anything that might come up.”
Problems with beer that Siebert tackled at Stroh included adjusting the formula of beer that had too much foam. But in the brewing industry, Siebert said there is often just enough time to “put a patch on it so it’s acceptable” before having to move on to another project — even if “maybe you felt like you could spend more time working on it.”
That time crunch has mostly disappeared for Siebert as a researcher in academia.
“You can stay with something for as long as you find a little bit of money for it and for as long as you think it’s worthwhile to do. That’s a little more intellectually satisfying, I would say,” he said.
Over the years, students looking for a taste of Siebert’s work have been able to find it in Food Science 4300: Understanding Wine and Beer. The class is so popular that it sometimes reaches capacity within the first 15 minutes of CourseEnroll, according to Siebert.
Although the name of the course alone may attract Dionysian students, Siebert said the class — which includes “a lot of chemistry and microbiology” — is no joke.
“It definitely has a reputation of being a lot harder than the hotel school’s course, [Hotel Administration 4300: Introduction to Wines]. In fact, we’ve had people tell us it was the hardest course they took at Cornell,” Siebert said.
Yet, each year, the promise of learning about the science of wine and beer production draws a variety of students, from food science majors to engineers.
Unlike those enrolled in the hotel school’s course, students in Understanding Wine and Beer, which Siebert — including the unpalatable ones, he added, chuckling. He co-teaches the course with three other professors.
“We demonstrate bad flavors as well as the good ones … not that we make people taste much of it, of course,” Siebert said, adding, “They can smell it, you know. Whatever’s needed.”
The teaching itself is fun, Siebert said, particularly when he is able to use his industry knowledge of the brewing process for his lectures.
From the brewery to the classroom, Siebert has spent much of his life developing an intimate relationship with beer and wine. Now, after 22 years at Cornell, he said he is beginning to tie up loose ends in his research in order to begin phasing into retirement.
“I’ve been working on beer foam lately,” he said. “I also still have one or two things I want to do on the protein polyphenol business.”
Although Siebert certainly has more knowledge than the average drinker about the substances that make a Pabst Blue Ribbon taste different than a Heineken, Siebert said that, decades in, his work has not necessarily dulled his appreciation of the beverage.
“I still drink beer. I still like it,” he said.