More than 'drunk history:' Popular Johns Hopkins course tackles beer evolution, appreciation

Offbeat offering among several special interest Intersession options

When students were asked why they signed up for this particular course, the question was met with blank looks. "Uh, it's beer," answered Michael Ou, a senior in the neuroscience program.

Every winter during Intersession, Johns Hopkins offers enrichment courses for students, faculty, staff, and their families. The courses are informal and noncredit, with offerings ranging from learning life skills like cooking to special interest and hobby listings. Nick Nichols, the self-dubbed Baltimore "Beertrekker," has led the popular three-hour course Beer History and Appreciation for participants 21 and older each January since 2003. He graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1992 with a master's degree in environmental science.

Students were advised to bring their own glasses, and Nichols supplied cheese, crackers, and bottles of six great beers to share.

The course began with a Paulaner Hefe-weizen, a German wheat beer brewed since 1634. "This is Beer 101," says Nichols, holding his glass up to the classroom lights. "Notice how you can't see through it? Those are chewies: leftover yeast still in the bottle."

Some students were reluctant to try the chewies, despite Nichols' enthusiasm.

Nichols tends to speak about beer in superlatives. "Beer started civilization," he contends. Grains needed to be grown and tended, he says, which signaled the shift in prehistoric civilizations from nomadic to agrarian societies. According to Nichols, the fermentation of grains into beer either caused that shift, or the two are so directly related that one can't be separated from the other.

Next, Nichols poured out Bell's porter, a sweet brew heavy on the malt. Students commented on the chocolate and coffee notes. Old Man Winter ale from Southern Tier, Green Flash's West Coast IPA Double India Pale Ale, and Ommegang's Soothsayer Belgian-style dark ale followed. The class's favorite was the Rodenbach Flemish red brown ale, brewed since 1821 and regularly ranked as outstanding by Beer Advocate ratings.

Nichols is filled with anecdotes, and freely shared stories about the beers he's consumed around the world. The only question he was even slightly reticent to answer during class was "What beer should we buy at the store?"

"There are so many good beers to choose from," he answered. "My favorite beer is whatever is in my hand. Unless I'm drinking Natty Boh."

Another section of the course is offered Wednesday, Jan. 20, at 6:30 p.m.

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Tagged intersession