Beer making 101: From Mercyhurst West farm to kitchen stove top

Brian and Drew

The next time you crack open a cold one, imagine how much better it would taste brewed by your own hand?

For Mercyhurst University biology major Drew Spacht, who brewed the first-ever Mercyhurst label – ‘Hurst Pale Ale – from hops grown at the university’s West campus farm, the experience was one to savor.

“Brewing beer is very social,” said the 21-year-old senior, who brewed his first batch in the kitchen of his family’s Harborcreek home last spring. “There’s a lot of downtime during the process, so you sit and talk and have a couple beers with family and friends as you wait for yours to brew. And the aroma is amazing.”

Spacht imagined himself brewing beer even before he was old enough to drink it. His grandfather, Merle Spacht, is the former owner of Grape City Beer in North East. His father, Charles Spacht, is a beer aficionado who enjoys sampling a wide variety of lagers and ales and also brews his own.

Everybody knows how to drink beer, but few know how to really taste it, and that’s where Drew makes the distinction.

“This isn’t about drinking to drink but about how to appreciate the taste of a beer and its heritage,” he said.

His recipe for ‘Hurst Pale Ale is that of an American pale ale with an Irish twist, the latter a suggestion from biology professor Mike Campbell, who recommended Drew capitalize on the university’s Irish heritage.

“To do that, I used an Irish yeast, adding it to the hops, barley and water, and it worked really well,” he said, describing the end product as exceptionally aromatic, marked by the scent of passion fruit, guava and citrus.

Although Drew has a family history steeped in beer appreciation, his personal path to home brewing began his freshman year at Mercyhurst through a multidisciplinary course called “Introduction to Sustainability Studies,” taught by professors Campbell, Chris Magoc and Christina Riley-Brown.

It was there that he learned of the university’s organic farm and all its possibilities, including the opportunity to raise and create uses for hops. Eventually, he proposed an independent study project by which he would harvest the hops, research and brew beer. He even applied sustainability measures, like using spent grain to make bread.

“I got much of my inspiration from researching California brewers, who have a lot of concern for the environment,” Drew said. “I learned that you can use hops to scent homemade soap, and spent yeast can be used in organic farming to attract beneficial insects. Just about everything can be recycled.”

Drew is now fully invested in brewing his second batch of ale, which is fermenting in the family dining room. He collects used beer bottles from family friends, sterilizes them and then refills them with his signature blend – two cases in all.

“The first time around, we invited faculty to do the tasting and it was surreal; everybody liked it,” he said. “This time, I’d like to see if I could involve more of the community. There are just so many things we can do with the hops we grow. We could even sell them to local home brewers and that’s a pretty big market here.”

Drew said he would be interested in starting a beer appreciation club on campus for students of legal drinking age, faculty and alumni that would approach beer drinking with respect and responsibility. “I think it would be a great way to bring people together to enjoy and to learn something new,” he said.

His vision also includes finding ways to include his brewing activities in the curriculum. “There’s a place for it in chemistry, biology, even religion. The best beer I ever drank was made by a group of monks.”

PHOTO: Student Drew Spacht, right, brews a batch of Hurst Pale Ale with help from biology assistant professor Michael Elnitsky.

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