Course Spotlight: Wines, Ciders, and Mead
The Falk School of Sustainability Master of Arts in Food Studies’s course Wines, Ciders, and Mead (FST512) has some things in common with your canonical graduate seminar. The instructor—Sally Frey, MFA, Ph.D.—is eminently qualified, having worked as a master sommelier (Frey is also a chef who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris). Five students are seated around a conference table on a brisk early winter morning, with another student at the podium, in front of, there it is—a PowerPoint presentation.
Her name is Danielle San Filippo, MAFS ’18, and she is showing photographs and reporting on a pear cider that she made. Listen:
“I wanted to let them ripen a little bit more so they’d press more juice. In retrospect it may not have been the best idea to let them get really sweet and sugary when you’re looking to get a dry cider (laughs). I took them home, and I decided to use the process Mike (Sturges, proprietor of a local cider collective, who was a guest speaker) shared with us – which is where you essentially juice the pears, right, we all had our different styles, mine was to use my juicer--and then mix the pulp back into the juice and press it again, and that way you’ll get this really concentrated flavor. That was a really bad idea, (class laughs) because I am not strong enough to press all that juice back out again. Essentially what happened was that I ended up with a really thick situation there. You guys can see all of this here, (gestures at screen) is the extra pulp that I was trying to mix back in together and press through. So in retrospect what I would do is just use the juice and sacrifice a little bit of the pear flavor. I also used a champagne yeast, but mine was a wine yeast as opposed to a beer one, because I had planned to use the champagne beer yeast that Mike gave us and luckily tried it first to get it activated and it was dead. So since I was already in the middle of this, I just grabbed what I had bought for one of my meads. That got me wondering – does that make this a pear wine now?”
“Technically no, because the alcohol content’s too low,” says Frey.
Danielle continues. “By November fifth, there was still a good bit of sediment, so I decided to go ahead and let it settle and then rack it, and it only produced those two bottles right there.”
“So there was that much sediment?” asks Frey.
“There was that much sediment. In fact, it was like pear sauce! I think overall in terms of making the cider I wanted to make, it didn’t get quite as dry as I like, but the flavor of pears definitely stands out. I think using the Eden Hall pears was a good choice, and I’m glad I tried this the way Mike said to, that we can all know not to do that (class laughs) moving forward.”
“We just don’t have the equipment to do that,” points out Frey.
“Right, right, if my juicer would have made the juice that I needed, it would have been fine. Anyway, I’m excited for you guys to try the perry (,” says Danielle.
What’s impressive is the consistent reflection: in retrospect, she says, and that got me wondering. Because as hands-on as this class is, Frey equips her students with the theoretical knowledge and collaborative spirit that effectively makes them artisans—even if just for the semester.
According to the syllabus, FST512 “provides a detailed study of the world of wines, grape varieties, ciders and mead,” and the word world seems carefully chosen indeed. Not only does it deal with global (and local) events, trends, and implications, but for every question you might expect in a course like this—what is so special about Chateau d’Yquem?—it goes snooping into other subjects, like history (What are some of the ways that Prohibition changed the way Americans ate?), technology (What type of bottle closure is the most sustainable?), psychology (What influence would a high score in a magazine like Wine Spectator have on how you choose a wine?), and biology (According to Giovanni Ruffa, it would be ironic if the world’s vineyards managed to survive the phylloxera epidemic only to be decimated by this trend toward what he calls “homologation.” What might be the consequences for bio-diversity?)
Students discuss wine journalism; marketing; and laws related to alcohol consumption, production, and distribution. They read texts and watch documentaries. They’ve visited Apoidea Apiary and Soergel Orchards, and guest speakers included Michael Sturges, proprietor of a local cider collective; Holly Harker from Subarashii Kudamono, an Asian pear orchard; and alumnus Michael Foglia MAFS ’16, who presented research that he did for local distillery Wigle Whiskey (which has teamed up with Chatham before).
After the presentations, the class moves downstairs to the spacious lodge kitchen. One by one, students pry caps off the bottles they’ve brought in, and pour samples for Frey and their classmates.
Students report on their ingredients (“The honey comes from Maple Valley Farms near Ross Park Mall. I called to find out more about their practices. They are not using certified naturally grown methods but they use organic practices for beekeeping.”), tasting (“I think you taste ginger in the end. I can feel that kind of burning sensation, which is a bad way to put it, but it’s good.”), their processes (“I ran into a few issues with temperature because I’m in the dorms. I wasn’t able to regulate the temperature. I wrapped my little blanket around it.”) and plans (“I’m gonna bring it home for Thanksgiving and have my family try it. They’ve never had mead!”).
Assignment: Write a 3-5-page proposal for a “Sustainable Beverage (multiple categories may be included) Tasting Fundraiser.” You will have an imaginary $400 budget to get you started and the event is to take place from 7:00 – 9:00 PM on a Saturday evening. The only requirement is that it should be “fun and educational.” Be specific with any items that you would purchase for the event and think through all the details from a sustainability lens. You will present your concept to the group and we will debate the best concept.
The course capstone is the final, semester-long project. Students pick a research topic related to local or global cider, mead, wine, sake, or honey to be presented to the group along with an essay and photo documentation of the fermentation/production process, if applicable. The goal is for the final project to be used as a portfolio piece.
For her final project, Danielle is making four different types of mead. “Modern mead-making uses chemical-based accelerants,” she says, “but I wanted to figure out how to make dry, semi-sweet, and sweet mead just by altering the amount and type of honey and yeast.”
“Lots of classes in the Falk School focus on group work,” says Danielle, “so this class is unique in that it’s focused on individual work, but then we all come together for three hours each week and work as a group to solve problems. The structure gave me time to think through my preconceptions and then come to class and be challenged.”
Chatham's Master of Arts in Food Studies in the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table.