Back to school: “Founders University” tutors beer nerds in sensory perception

GRAND RAPIDS — Class is in session. Everyone find a seat. Take out a pen. Please don’t drink any of the beer in front of you just yet.

This is no back-to-school dream. This is reality, thanks to the new Founders University courses, now enrolling for the fall.

Last Tuesday, Founders held its first “Sensory Perception” class — the graduate-level complement, if you will — to the Beer 101 course that also opened this August. A handful of paying students (and one lucky scholarshipped reporter) sniffed, swirled and tasted their way through a series of beer samples with the goal of refining palettes and broadening beer knowledge.

The classroom was Founders’ Centennial Room, the private area accessible only by elevator in the new addition.

The professor was the jovial John Gautraud, Founders’ Education Ambassador, joined on this occasion by Dave Engbers, bona fide Founders’ co-founder.

The “desks” for the evening were tables scattered around the upstairs bar, each holding two placemats, which themselves held eight specialized beer tasting glasses, each filled with two inches of identical golden ale. A water glass and a pint of Founders Solid Gold flanked the placemat, and a bowl of crusty bread (for palette cleansing) occupied the middle of each table.

Though Gautraud offered a few good-natured jokes as the class filtered in — “Don’t worry, this isn’t a prison diet” — it was clear this would be a fairly sober class. The pint glass was a “control” beer, meant for reference more than enjoyment. The samples were all tainted beer, each corrupted by a common “off flavor” produced by a common error in brewing or storage.

Over two and a half hours, the class gradually worked through the eight mistakes. Gautraud would give students a few minutes to smell and taste the profile of a sample, asking everyone to compare notes and compare against the control beer, and then would reveal the error, describe its flavors and explain its causes.

A bite of bread and a swig of water, and then on to the next sample. Sniff, sip, ponder. Eat, rinse, repeat. This was no wine-tasting waltz through the countryside.

The emphasis on what can go wrong with a beer, instead of what can go right, and the large chemical words — acetaldehyde, dimethyl sulfide, isovaleric acid — characterize the class as something homebrewers might appreciate best. When a basement batch tastes like movie theater popcorn, it might be helpful to know what causes it (diacetyl) and how to fix it (let the beer mature longer). For most consumers, however, sniffing for rancid butter before imbibing probably won’t add much to the beer experience.

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But both Gautraud and Engbers agreed the course isn’t just meant for homebrewers. Engbers said he hopes the class will engender a “better beer consumer,” one who can hold breweries, bars and restaurants accountable and thus help improve quality across the craft beer industry.

“As a consumer, it’s your choice to say, ‘This isn’t right,’” said Engbers — and if you can explain, say, that dirty tap lines corrupted your beer with acetic acid, you might be convincing.

The class “does have a great benefit for homebrewers,” added Gautraud, “but it’s not necessarily just for them.” Ideally, he said, the sensory perception course will help participants “enjoy [good] beer, enjoy the quality a bit more and have a bit more appreciation afterwards.”

This proved true at least in the immediate context of the class: the free pint of good beer offered at the end certainly was appreciated after all the bad.

And even if no one in the class graduated a beer genius, Gautraud was still generous with his grades. “It being the first one, I’ll probably be more lenient,” he joked. “I think everybody’s getting A’s so far.”

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