MOORHEAD – While her friends were reading People and Seventeen magazines, 17-year-old Ellen Brisch had her nose in a book about beer-making.
Growing up in Germany, Brisch, now a biosciences professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead and the chairwoman of the department, was exposed to good beer at a very young age. She quickly learned that beer consumption was about quality over quantity as well as celebrating with family.She’d stay home on Saturday nights to play cards with her German father and grandmother, knowing he’d share a six-pack of high-quality beer with her.
Around the same time, she became interested in biology, which naturally developed into a passion for the science behind brewing.
“I wanted to learn about it, because back in the ’70s, Bud, Michelob, PBR – those were pretty much the available beers (in the States). I had this taste in my mind of excellent things that I’d had in Europe, and I wanted to learn about it,” she says.
While working and studying in Massachusetts, Kansas and Utah, Brisch further immersed herself in the history of beer-making and beer-making methods. She learned to make her own, brewing different varieties monthly with friends.
“I think Massachusetts was one of the early home-brew-revolution places,” she says. “Beer was expensive, so we were like, ‘Hey, you know what? Let’s try to make our own.’ ”
She became a certified beer judge in 2000 and has been volunteering as a judge for the Prairie Homebrewing Companions’ Hoppy Halloween event every year since. She’s judged at a handful of other events, too, like the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
A couple years ago, Brisch offered a 1-credit summer course in brewing through MSUM. She’s hoping, with the help of a research student, to develop it into a full 3-credit class.
“I’m somebody who loves to read about and study beer probably more than actually drink it,” she says with a laugh.
Now 51, Brisch continues to expand her knowledge of beer-making and -tasting. Here, she shares a little of that knowledge ahead of the 5th Annual Fargo Beer Festival.
Through your teens, what was your favorite beer?
Based on my experience, I really liked traditional German beers.
How would you describe those?
I would describe them as lagers with a very “clean” flavor profile.
What do you enjoy now?
I love to experiment, so I often will try things that are new.
I’ll go to (Moorhead) liquor stores like Bridgeview Liquors or 99 Bottles and ask what’s new.
In the summer, after I mow the lawn, I love a nice cold Summit in a can.
Does understanding the beer-making process make you a better beer consumer?
I believe so, very much. Understanding the process helps me identify where problems can happen, which helps me identify “off” flavors or flaws. So as a beer consumer, I can really appreciate a quality product and the work that went into making it.
I love Fargo Brewing Company. I love going to their tap room … I can’t say enough about Fargo Brewing Company.
Have you noticed a shift in American beer-drinkers’ preferences?
Oh yes. When you go to a liquor store, talk to friends or go to potluck dinner parties, there’s just a lot more craft brews, a lot more awareness, a lot more excitement. It used to be I was sort of an odd duck for loving to talk about beer. Now I almost always can find people who are eager to talk about beer with me.
How can you tell if it’s a well-made beer?
You learn to associate which flaws can be caused by which errors in the brewing process. For example, which flavors are affected when the fermentation is a little too hot or a little too fast.
It just takes practice in tasting, being very intentional.
How do you get the most out of the beer-tasting experience?
I think for me, just because I’m an educator and I’m so excited about beer, sharing it with someone and talking about it is a great way.
When you know more about something, you appreciate it more.
Are you going to the Fargo Beer Festival?
I can’t. It’s not held at a convenient time for me with school back in session.
But I know a lot of people who go and love it. It’s an ideal setting to taste lots of things because you have brewers there that are eager to showcase their beer and let people have a sample.
If you go
What: 5th Annual Fargo Beer Festival
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday; doors open at 5:45.
Where: Fargo Civic Center, 207 4th St. N.
Info: Tickets cost $25 in advance and are available at Fargo-Moorhead Empire, Crown and Royal liquor stores. They go up in price to $30 at the door.