Thirsty for Knowledge

If there's one lesson students want to learn at a beer connoisseur's college class, it's this: How to choose good brews

October 08, 2007|By KEVIN COWHERD

I guess it was when our instructor handed out cold bottles of Anchor Steam beer and tasty cheddar cheese to our class at Howard Community College that I felt my appreciation deepen for the educational system in this country.

The Tommy Makem and Clancy Brothers tunes wafting from the boombox helped, too. But mostly it was the beer. If there were classes like this back when I was in college, I would have never left.

OK, fine, this was a noncredit course at HCC's Columbia Gateway campus the other night called "Beer History and Appreciation" taught by a man named William "Nick" Nichols, who can talk about beer the way Joan Rivers can talk about face-lifts.

There were 20 of us in the class: 14 men and six women. And for three hours, we drank beer, looked at beer, sniffed beer, talked about beer, studied beer labels to discover their ingredients and drank more beer.

After a while, the classroom setting - the gunmetal-gray desks and chairs and wooden lectern - seemed to recede, and it was almost like a happy hour in a good pub, minus the Buffalo wings and howling drunks.

I was almost tempted to fire up a cigar, except if you light a tobacco product indoors in this state, they will drag you out into the street and shoot you.

Nichols, 38, has been lecturing about beer for years. He has deep roots in the beverage and food industry - his dad owned Nichols' Seafood at the Cross Street Market for years and now runs a seasoning business.

For his day job, the younger Nichols is a scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency. But his passion is beer. He calls himself the "Baltimore Beertrekker" and is the closest thing to a beer evangelist you'll ever see.

His sermon to the class revolved around this theme: Drink good beer.

Appreciate good beer. Learn about its history. Understand how it's made. Realize its importance in the fabric of our culture.

Oh, and don't settle for swilling the popular, mass-produced brews, which he calls "pale yellow fizz," that you see on those stupid TV commercials.

In fact, when he mentions Budweiser, Miller and Coors, he makes the kind of face you'd make if you just came upon a decaying corpse.

Even before class started, when a woman asked about Corona Light, Nichols snorted: "I wouldn't ever waste your time drinking that stuff."

Then he suggested that if she absolutely had to drink a light beer - making it clear this should only be done if, say, a nuclear conflagration had wiped out all other beers - she should try a Sam Adams or Amstel.

Nichols admits aficionados of quality beers can be "beer snobs," every bit as insufferable as wine snobs, the most annoying people on the planet, who prattle on and on about color, bouquet and hints of this and that.

But he doesn't come off as snobby about beer. He's more of an earnest guide to the ever-expanding galaxy of great domestic and imported beers, determined to see that people enjoy them to the fullest.

"Rule No. 1," he barked, holding up a pint glass as the Anchor Steam was served, "never drink out of a bottle or plastic cup. Beer needs air to breathe. ... Let it settle for a minute."

OK. We all poured our beers and let them settle.

"Make it a 5-ounce pour, so the college doesn't fire me and you're not drunk," Nichols added.

Then I watched the guy in front of me, Mike Pesci, an electrical engineer from Ellicott City, take a mighty gulp. He sure didn't sip like a wine guy. I asked him what he thought of the beer.

"I don't think there's going to be too many I don't like," he said dryly.

Right then, I knew the game was on and that I had found a home.

For the rest of the class, Nichols took us on a rollicking tour of thousands of years of beer history. I think we started in the Stone Age - something about early man stumbling on grain that had fermented in a puddle after a rainstorm, taking a sip of the thick, dark liquid, liking how it tasted, drinking more and catching the first recorded buzz.

To tell you the truth, I was concentrating on the cheese tray being passed around.

Then Nichols talked about the main ingredients in beer (barley, water, hops and yeast - anything else, like raspberries, is sissy stuff) and how beer is basically divided into three "families": lagers, ales and lambics.

At some point, he came back to the history of beer and Prohibition, which we all agreed was a dark period in this country's history, as there was no beer, so therefore how could you live because the bootleg stuff tasted like dishwater.

Then, I don't know, we got on the subject of German beers.

And suddenly the person to my right, a very nice woman named Nicole Mazmanian from Ellicott City, the business development manager for a law firm, told Nichols she was throwing an Oktoberfest party and asked him to recommend a few appropriate beers for the occasion.

But this is not to suggest that the class wasn't focused.

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