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August 5, 2020

A (beer) gut course in history - Free University class gives students some real libation education

By Jeff Katzenstein | October 28, 2004

Crack open a cold bottle of beer in Levering Hall's Little Theatre on any other day of the week, and you may be kicked out of the building. But not this Saturday. Or any other Saturday for the next five weeks. Students are gathered around a table, sipping their brews with interest, and listening as professor William "Nick" Nichols guides them through a course called The History of Beer.

The course is taught through Baltimore Free University (BFU), a program that originally started in 1968 with the goal of offering free, not-for-credit courses in a wide variety of disciplines to Hopkins students and area residents.

Last year, after a 20-year hiatus, the school was resurrected and now offers some 20 classes, with topics ranging from debt management to ballroom dance lessons.

For History of Beer, you can forget about what you learned in high school history class. The Pilgrims didn't land at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts because they had planned to. They wanted to land in Virginia, but they had run out of beer, and because they didn't have water on board (the long voyage would cause it to spoil), they had to set their anchors down early.

That's only the start of beer's importance in our history, and this is only the start of a class that Nichols hopes will change some minds about the amber brew.

Nichols is a self-proclaimed "beer nut." He enjoys studying beer's history, and loves trying new and different kinds of beer, although he doesn't take the drink too seriously. He refuses to drink major label beers -- Coors, Miller, Budweiser, Corona -- instead opting for the microbrews made by smaller companies that generally use quality ingredients and are more creative and fresher.

He's brewed his own beer before, although he prefers to sample other beers instead. He longs for a time when pubs were for talking about the day's events instead of watching sports. And he hopes that his students will leave his class with an appreciation for history in general, and learn that instead of pounding a case of Budweisers on the weekend, they can drink four or five microbrews and be happy.

The students are certainly listening, and most have made at least one of the two classes so far.

"It was something I always wanted to learn more about," explains 22-year-old Charles Village resident Dave Celata. "I just graduated from college and during those four years I drank a fair amount of beer."

"I had no prior knowledge of beer or anything, so it's good to learn," says Hopkins grad student Abhishek Gupta.

Nichols, who is now in his second year of teaching "Environmental Protection 101" with BFU, was originally encouraged by his brother (also a beer nut) to teach the course through BFU. In addition, he was inspired by the Smithsonian-sponsored class, "History of Beers in the U.S.," taught at a Washington, D.C. pub.

Because of his prior teaching experience with BFU, approaching program director Bill Tiefenwerth with the idea was a little easier.

"[Bill] thought it was great right away," Nichols explains. "I was a little surprised, but if you look at some of the topics that people teach [at Free University], it's not exactly rocket science."

And so Nichols is here on Saturdays at noon, teaching students about a time when beer was more of a food than an intoxicating beverage and when the first crops planted by formerly nomadic tribes -- malt, barley, hops and corn -- were for making bread and beer. Pasteurization, despite its common link to bottles of milk, was originally used for beer, and refrigerated rail cars were used for ale before they were used for meat or cheese. Just don't get him started on Prohibition.

"As far as history, beer plays a much more significant role in civilization than people think," Nichols explains.

Nichols, who holds a Master's Degree in Environmental Science from Hopkins, is now an environmental protection specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency. His interest in microbrews actually sprouted from his career interests.

"As an environmentalist, I've always been for the do-it-yourself movement," Nichols says. "I can't really support the big corporations, who pollute and are wasteful."

Instead, he'll buy a case of Fat Tire Ale, made by a small brewery in Colorado that runs completely on wind power and uses organic ingredients, something you'll never see Anheuser-Busch doing.

"Once you have a good microbrew you never turn back," Nichols claims. "Some people don't know what they're missing."

But it's not only the environmental practices that drive Nichols past the Budweiser displays and towards the packs of Dogfish Head.

The smaller companies tend to be more creative with their ingredients, and thus put out tastier brews. And with the number of microbrews that have sprung up in the past decade (they now number around 3,000), there are plenty of flavors and styles.

"I think with the [current public] interest in beer," Nichols says, "I could teach two of these classes if Hopkins advertised [Free University] like it should."

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