Friday, May 30, 2008

Done.

We made it. I don't know if I passed biochemistry or not, but it doesn't matter. My other grades have been trickling in and are good enough to offset the possible failing grade, so (unless I get hit by a bus prior to the ceremony) I will be receiving a diploma next week! We (the whole class) leave for a whirlwind industry tour in northern Germany at 5am on Monday. Our stops are: Stralsunder Brauerei (Stralsund), Malteurop (Rostock), KRONES (Flensburg), Flensburger Brauerei (Flensburg), Holsten-Brauerei (Hamburg), KHS (Hamburg), KWS Lochow (Bergen-Wohlde), and InBev/Hasseroeder (Wernigerode). Sounds fun, but exhausting. I doubt anyone will get much sleep on the bus with Felipe running his mouth the whole time.

With biodisappointemistry already out of the way, I've got reviews of some other core subjects up next, followed by highlights of the upcoming 4-day excursion and graduation, and finally this blog's conclusion: an overall review of the program and some suggestions for future participants.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Biodisappointemistry

2 days/3 exams to go. We don't have any grades back yet, but with the exception of microbiology, I think all have gone well so far. I found my new favorite restaurant in Berlin (pictured). Too bad I didn't try it sooner. Amazing burritos. I might eat there everyday for the 8 days that I have left here in Berlin. In my links section, I've added a Google map with the best places in Berlin that my classmates and I have discovered (we weren't actually the first humans to go to them) during our stay. So, if you go to Berlin, do yourself a favor and check out our "discoveries." Classmates: if you think of any place that I should add (ie: I don't have a name for the biergarten in Tiergarten) please let me know.

Biochemistry is our last exam. I'm not exaggerating when I say that there is almost no chance that I will pass it. While not ideal, this is OK, because I should still be able to "graduate" based on my other grades, but the lack of knowledge gained in this subject is a source of major disappointment for me and a few of my classmates. Namely, the ones with no previous chemistry/biochemistry experience. Most of my close friends are getting it...or at least enough of it to not be as angry as I am, but that's only after many hours of help outside of class from Felipe, VLB's best (unpaid) teacher, who has nearly retaught the entire course to 4 of us. If you're enrolled in CBC 09, you better make sure they've got another Felipe signed up.

I'm not at all where I wanted to be with chemistry or biochemistry. These were my weakness coming here and they are still my weaknesses leaving. Sure, I've learned some things, but my level of understanding is barely basic and does not meet the expectations that I had coming here. I came here, in part, because the schedule was supposed to be heavy in chemistry/biochemistry and microbiology. While I haven't exactly mastered microbiology, I do feel like I went from zero to a good, basic understanding of what is important in relation to brewing science, and I have plenty of material (and Dr. Hinrichs' email) that I can reference in the future. Biochemistry, on the other hand, has been an incredible disappointment.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect to master biochemistry in under 6 months without prior experience, but I find the setup for learning chemistry and biochemistry at VLB completely unacceptable. I've discussed some of this before, so rather than ramble on, here are the problems with chemistry/biochemistry that VLB needs to fix and how they should fix them:

  • Problem: More hours of the subjects needed in the program. Solution: Eliminate subjects like economics, automation, brewery arithmetics, and other non-brewing science courses to add more chemistry hours to the program. If "Science Generates Quality," then don't waste my time with other subjects only to shortchange me in the science department.
  • Problem: Chemistry/biochemistry are important for understanding all of the other subjects. Solution: Add more (or all) chemistry to module 1 or make college level chemistry a prerequisite.
  • Problem: Not enough repetition, too much time between classes. Solution: Have class more frequently, don't reschedule classes - 2 weeks is too long in between classes.
  • Problem: Subjects are not focused enough on brewing science. Solution: Eliminate DNA, RNA, creation type of topics and focus on the reason why we are here (in the course, not on earth).
  • Problem: Too much assumed knowledge and too fast of a pace. The chemical engineers should be able to sleep through or skip this class. Felipe was entertained by it and my eyes were glazed over the entire time. Solution: This is not a subject where you can teach to the middle ground. Start at the basics, and build up systematically. It doesn't matter what the average background of the class is, start at the beginning.
  • Problem: No reinforcement of what is learned. Solution: Have homework, quizzes, etc. like a normal class.
  • Problem: Not enough teaching/learning. Solution: Don't have us (in a very rushed fashion!) copy down structures that we don't know/understand so we can just memorize them later.
...More reviews (positive and negative) of VLB coming soon, now that it's almost all over with.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

4 more days

Yesterday was a long one. We had the written Chemical Technical Analyses exam at 8am and then the CTA Practical exam from 9am to 5pm (Definitely the longest exam I've ever had). The class is divided into thirds for this one, so some people have it today or tomorrow instead. I'm lucky to have it over with, and the whole weekend to rest and focus on the last 4 days of exams. I can't believe this is all over with on Thursday.

The practical exam was also divided into three parts: water analyses, beer analyses, and the Kjeldahl method for nitrogen/protein content. It was organized as a rotation where 3 people worked (independently and with different samples) on one set of analyses at a time to avoid cramped conditions, cheating, etc. Erica and Felipe also had the practical yesterday, but they started with Kjeldahl, whereas I began with water analyses. I'm glad I didn't have to work in Felipe's group. He knocked over Erica's samples at one point and created several other minor disasters.

Afterwards, Erica, Felipe, and I went to the biergarten in Tiergarten. I'd never been before, but everyone else has been raving about it. It definitely is the nicest of the few I've seen in Berlin so far. The weather is such a contrast from the first 4 months of the program - It's really too bad that the course doesn't start in March or April. If you ever visit Berlin, do NOT come before April. Someone told me a joke the other day: The only way to tell if it is winter or summer in Berlin is by the temperature of the rain.

p.s. It has come to my attention that groups of women in offices worldwide have been discussing the topic of Felipe's beard. To better facilitate this discussion, I have added a second poll in which you can voice your opinion. This poll can be found below the archives list in the right hand column.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Fragile Mind

I’m not exactly sure when I went insane, but I guess that probably comes with the territory. I don’t think it was before this afternoon, but really, it’s hard to say for sure. I can’t seem to sleep for very long without waking up, and it’s not the good kind of waking up either. It’s the kind where you come to while in a free-fall, think your heart has stopped, become startled by a loud noise, or realize the alarm clock has died, and both the time and your 8am exam moved on without you. Of course none of these things actually occurred, but it takes some time to filter them out of reality.

I remember studying pictures of yeast cells and bacteria colonies from something like 5:15 to 7:30 this morning, which was probably a good thing. The microbiology lottery was fairly good to me today – I got the process water analysis, a culture yeast, and what I strongly believe to have been Zygosaccharomyces (yeast) and Micrococcus (bacteria). The process water analysis is easy as pie (some gets pour plated into Standard 1 agar and the rest gets membrane filtered onto wort and VLB S7 agars), but there’s a bit of a trade off in which, having gotten off light today likely makes for a more difficult analysis of the post-incubation results next week. As long as I don’t screw that up next Wednesday, I should be in good shape for the practical portion.

After the practical, I joined the usual suspects for lunch outside of the imbiss and we lounged around, waiting for the theoretical portion of the exam to begin at 2pm. I didn’t have any idea what the answers were to the first five questions or much of what followed. I didn’t expect to ace this one, but whatever securities I had about my ability to pass it, must have bypassed my clogged reality filter. After struggling through the exam, I turned it in, went outside and took a look at my manual to see what (if any) points I might have eeked out of my guesses. I had made an effort to try to memorize some of the questions that I was clueless about and managed to hold 4 or 5 of them in short term memory, but a quick browse through the manual yielded no answers. I decided to try again once I got home and proceeded to a scheduled meeting with Dr. Ahrens for part 2 of the "him helping me decide how to treat the brewery water in Roanoke" sessions.

Still reeling from the test, I sat down with Dr. Ahrens who began going through lab results, notes, and a schematic…that I had never seen before. I told him that I thought he may have had me mixed up with someone else, but failed to get my point across. I tried my best to wrap my mind around what was going on, thinking that maybe he had new data from the lab, and was taking things in a different direction, so I did my best to follow. We might as well have been speaking different languages. He was just as sure that I had given him the schematic and data table on his desk as I was that I had not. I’m not sure who was more confused when I left, me or him. I walked home blasting Buena Vista Social Club into my ears to relax and hoped that I would soon wake up from whatever messed up dream I must be in.

I took a more thorough look through my microbiology manual when I got home, but only found one answer to the stumpers from the exam. So I’m either blind, have the wrong book, or am still insane. I fell asleep staring at some strange, fast moving clouds through the skylight above my bed. Not 2 seconds after I woke up, an airplane jetted silently across the otherwise cloud free, bright, blue sky. Reaching for my little 2 Euro alarm clock, I knocked it and sent it flying as if I had been trying to grab a moving target. I tossed some returnable bottles in my empty backpack and headed to the grocery store, which I was certain closed in 30 minutes. I turned down the wrong street, but didn’t notice for a while. A bug flew into my eye and became wedged under the lid, adding to my discomfort and disorientation. I got to the store with 8 minutes to spare, but it had been closed for 52 minutes. My eye hurt worse than my stomach, so I walked back home to deal with that rather than eating, which I believe was the original goal. As I waited to cross the crosswalk, a car with a green light slowed, thinking that I somehow had the right of way despite their green light. They were almost rear ended by a fast moving, horn blaring car which would have sent the first car tumbling into me had they connected. I froze. Time to go back to sleep.

I just got some emails from the homebrew club listserv back in Blacksburg discussing a barley wine with a Final Gravity of 1.044. Maybe I’m insane, but that’s a normal Original Gravity. What a waste of extract and an unpalatable sugary hangover in a glass. I can't believe that people make that style of beer intentionally. Is it possible that I am the main character in an unpublished Kurt Vonnegut novel? Plant Equipment final tomorrow. Surely, it can only be better than today.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Funny Signs

It's Tuesday night, which means there's sword fighting on my hall. Perhaps it's more accurate to call it fencing...? Well, Fencing (or whatever it is that they do with the swords) is a big part of the German fraternity where I've been living for the last five months. They even have this whole big room for it just down the hall from my room. I thought it was a little strange when I first moved in, but I barely notice it anymore. Except on Tuesdays. That's when I usually find myself saying, "Who's making all that noise...and what the hell are they banging on?!?" Then after a few seconds I think, "Ooooh...Riiiiight. It's Tuesday." It used to be on Wednesday nights, but I guess they changed their schedule.

My uncle Randy gets a kick out of reading the garbage that comes out of online translation websites, so I thought I'd give the sign on the fencing room door (pictured) a shot to see came out. It gave me: "Swotting soil Entered on own danger." It's normal practice for Randy to re-translate the translation and then re-translate that, you know, just to make sure the online translator is working properly. He's sent me the results from doing this back and forth between English and German a few times and believe me, there are some pretty good reads. Maybe Larry David can make a series of books about it called, "Translations From a Nut." Anyway, I thought I'd give Randy's method a try since I don't like to mess with tradition. Here's what came out the second time: "Swotting ground Come in on own danger." Usually the translation gets worse with each iteration, but I think I may have found the exception.

I guess I got a little sidetracked, but the whole point of this post was to share some funny signs. After only a few days in Berlin (I believe I was walking down Dickhardt Street at the time) it was apparent to me that I was going to have to start a collection of photos of funny signs. The collection isn't as large as I'd hoped it would be, mostly because I've been pretty slack about following through on some of my ideas and taking pictures of all of the signs, but since I'm running out of time...Here's what I've got so far: White Trash restaurant, smoking can kill you, big hamburger street, this no dogs sign looked funnier when we had been drinking, no cars, houses, or parents playing soccer with their 5 year old allowed sign, saw this jar in the windmill, this guy is really happy about coffee in Munich, Queerbeet means journey in English but I'm pretty sure this disco might attract a different crowd back home, and the one that I really regret dropping the ball on is my "Gut" collection. When Germans advertise, they say things like, "Good. Fast. Cheap." That's about as adjectivy as they ever get and they never say that something is the best (Katrin J. told me that it may even be against the law to do so).

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Home Stretch

The weather has continued with its nearly perfect streak, the hops have been growing like mad, and we're almost finished here. We just completed the last full week of classes and final exams begin next week. It's shaping up to be a pretty crazy sprint to the finish, with lots crammed in at the last minute and preparations for some of the more scary exams already in full force. I think we all have the most concern about passing microbiology.

In addition to the theory exam, our practical exam consists of a lottery system. The number drawn corresponds to a place sit where we each will have 2 yeast strains and 1 bacteria that we must identify using all of the methods that we've learned. Then we have to analyze a sample that could be process water, storage tank beer, filtered beer, etc. which may or may not be laced with something. We've learned protocols for identifying yeasts (saccharomyces top and bottom fermenting, non-saccharomyces), molds, aerobic bacteria, beer spoiling bacteria, etc. and we've got micro-filtration, wort agar, lysine agar, standard 1 with actidione, acetate agar, VLB S7 agar, endo agar, lactose peptone broth, gram staining, oxidase and catalase tests, macroscopes, microscopes, entro tubes, Durham tubes, and more at our disposal, but this has serious potential to get ugly. There are a lot of things that have to go right and a lot of exceptions to a lot of rules.

Then there's the 8 hour Chemical Technical Analyses exam. We've been practicing the analyzes the last 2 weeks, which has got all of us feeling better about our chances, but it's still no joke and believe it or not, 8 hours is only enough time to finish all of the required analyzes if few-to-no mistakes are made. I practiced the water (total hardness, Ca & Mg, P&M values) and beer analyzes (color, bitter substances, and distillation for extract, ABV, etc.) last week and the malt analyzes (moisture content and the 4 hour Kjeldahl Method for nitrogen/protein content today. There are a lot of potential pitfalls and plenty of things to screw up in these analyzes...especially when you have to do them all in 8 hours while being watched and graded. I'll be glad once it's all over with.

We managed to slip a VLB arranged brewery tour into this week's chaos. Most of the class made it to the Berliner Kindl Schultheiss Brauerei. The tour was great and the brewery (formerly owned by the east German government) has some interesting history. It was the world's largest brewery under the ownership of Schultheiss in the twenties. The bottle shop was pretty elaborate and one of the more interesting ones that I've seen as it included systems for receiving, cleaning, and inspecting the classic returnable/refillable German beer bottles in addition to all of the normal fascinating processes of high speed filling lines. I wish I had some pictures for you, but everything except the brewhouse pictured here was off limits. I haven't consumed much Berliner Pilsner since I've been here, but it's a good one and I'm going to have to pay more attention to it once exams are over.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Wie heißt du?

Not much time for blogging this week...we've got some extra lectures and a big paper due Friday. Since there's nothing new to read here, perhaps you can help me out with something:

(I have no idea how many of you are also subscribed to the BBC News Feed, so I apologize if this is duplicate info for you.)

Anyway, I've got to hurry up and decide on a name for BBC's future flagship beer, and you can help right here. I'd especially love to hear from Blacksburgers and those with ties to Blacksburg. Serious suggestions only please! Thanks.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Holy Humulus Lupulus!

The weather in Berlin has been amazing lately. So good that we've been checking on the hop garden between classes. Those suckers grow fast (up to 30cm in one day)! Check out this one. The ties on the wire represent only 24 hours.

I have some good news that you probably won't care about. After a couple of weeks of struggle, I finally recovered the bulk of my files from Data Safe. It wasn't pretty and I definitely recommend uninstalling the program if you have it and think it is doing anything good for you. Afterwards, I was so happy that I sent this really nice thank you note to Dell. (And when I say nice, I mean that it was nicer than the death threat that I wanted to make.)

Here's a picture of the bottle inspector at VLB that George taught us about, here's me sterilizing the membrane filtration unit in microbiology, here's Katrin showing us how foam stability is analyzed, and here's Mike preaching the gospel according to MEBAK to us during CTA. This entry feels very John Lane-esque...minus the extra pounds of course. (ouch!)