When I began my exchange at ETH Zürich, I did not expect to take a class in wine production techniques. In reality, the class is not technically about wine production… exclusively… it also includes insight into brewing processes as well as a short introduction to distillation. The class, appropriately meeting Friday afternoons, is titled the Biotechnology of Alcoholic Beverage Production – which I signed up for as a result of my passion for biotechnology and because there are not food science classes typically offered at Northwestern. This class primarily focuses on understanding and manipulating the underlying biological processes (e.g. fermentation) that lead to different properties in many of the world’s alcoholic beverages.
The most astonishing part of this class is certainly the hands-on experience that seems deeply ingrained in many of ETH’s classes. I have found during my exchange that when classes are directly intertwined with real-world processes, concepts are more deeply ingrained than if material is overheard during lecture. In the case of the Biotechnology of Alcoholic Beverage Production class, this hands-on approach has been two-fold: First, in class we often sample beverages produced under different conditions to observe the effect of downstream processing on the final product. Second, on a trip to Lavaux, a prominent wine-making region in Switzerland, I was able to put my knowledge learned in the classroom to the test – identifying grape varieties by their taste and physical properties, distinguishing wild grapes from their domesticated counterparts based on examining seedlings, and even analyzing grape-pressing techniques to determine which types of wines were being produced.
Although my exchange is just beginning, I have already learned valuable practical skills by employing perhaps the most unlikely of teaching aids: wine.