Ben Novak on a Real University and the Revolution of Craft Beer


What does the educational history of Penn State have to do with craft beer?

Former Penn State trustee Dr. Ben Novak’s writings on these topics are now republished by the Nittany Valley Society in two books. In his Centre Daily Times columns running from 1984-87 he shared enthusiastically the joyous art brewing in the new craft beer scene, now published as The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution. He then wrote a series of essays appearing in State College The Magazine in 1988-89 entitled Is Penn State A Real University? This examined Penn State’s role as an educational institution, seriously calling for students, parents, alumni, townspeople, and faculty to reflect and engage one another over what the modern day university had become, the direction it was heading, and students’ place in it. Please read full separate reviews of each on Amazon.

I’ve had the pleasure of many deeply intellectual, moving conversations and debates with Ben over the years, quite spirited, in every sense. Even the ones over alcohol were strangely, sobering. The aforementioned works were written separately and published separately, as distinct topics. This is not a review of either, but I take full responsibility for conflating them here.

Education and craft beer have much in common on several levels. First, to enjoy quality in anything means you take the time to savor it, almost contemplatively, and not guzzle, gorge, or rush through merely to consume it. This begets a civility and refinement in your manner and time spent with it. It also invites curiosity of the subtlety, nuance, (or extravagance) of the flavors you are tasting, leaving you wondering how they were created.

The beer columns also emphasized beer to compliment the enjoyment of good fellowship over which it was shared. This not only enhanced each experience, but the flavors allowed you to reminisce over your own past experiences enjoying them, like a favorite song that took you back to fond times, events or feelings at key points in your life when you first heard it. Civilizing affects, intellectual discovery, and the bonding of common spirit in fellowship were underlying themes integral to how Ben treated both subjects.

In Is Penn State a Real University he challenges the reader to think more deeply, historically, and artistically, engaging the mind and spirit. To fully develop the character of her students and raise the intellectual tone of the community he wrote were classical educational goals of Penn State inside and outside the classroom. Analogously, to raise the tone of the palate to the artful symphony of robust flavors in craft beer was to enhance the appreciation by the drinker and his awareness of the brew, and thereby elevate his senses and broaden his imagination. From the beer columns:

“For me, a beer is not just a beer anymore then art is just art. One looks for character. What remains is not what is consumed, but what is savored.”

Beyond flavor, enjoying higher character in a beer meant letting it compliment the finest company with whom you shared it. Ben wrote:

“How does a brewery change the world? It doesn’t. It opens up people to the experience of time well spent. Some beers are not for drinking quickly to slake a thirst. Some beers just encourage people to sit back, slowly slip, and open up to the pleasurable experience of a good conversation. Only when one is willing to take the time is it possible to enjoy true taste and good fellowship.”

To be coupled with soulful (but intelligent) conversation and spirited fellowship, imbibing was not for mere recreational inebriation, but was meant to quench a thirst for quality to match that of the shared social experience.

“After Desert and coffee, the dinner is over, but the mellow feeling that opens up to good conversation and true fellowship is usually just beginning. One wants a beverage to compliment the feeling … One enjoys the company of friends with such classic brews. Why? Because they open up a deeper appreciation of both the tragedies and comedies of life. As the poet, A.E. Hausman put it, ‘Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.’”

Hence all the beer columns ended with Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit! Meaning a toast to coziness, good cheer, or friendliness, he translated as “a toast to good fellowship!”

What Ben referred to as the ‘other half’ of a higher education he wrote, was the set of character forming out-of-class experiences where, among other things, that kind of fellowship was realized. It meant students engaged not just among themselves but with townspeople, alumni, faculty, etc. in joint collaborations and every-day interactions. This included (but was not limited to) social time, over beer or at the bar.

But how could bar time be “character forming”? Ben always spoke of Plato’s The Laws, and its section on the educational benefit of drinking parties. Integral to learning virtue, one must be faced with challenge and adversity to overcome temptations. So when drinking in mixed company, one learns to strive for better judgment when their judgment is impaired and sense of shame is diminished, much the same way that one becomes a stronger swimmer or runner when saddled with resistance weight in the course of training. This was always in stark contrast to the “zero-tolerance” approach of campus programs attempting to curb dangerous drinking.

In other words the virtues one learned were not limited to literary classics one studied in class. They truly came alive in the other half of one’s education, where students learned to creatively do things together, not just individually. He said:

“if students do not have ways and means to become actively involved with faculty, alumni, and townspeople, they cannot truly be educated”; and “this community should cut across every age group and every vocation, to provide practical opportunities for each to be the teacher and student of each.”

And just as Ag fields and science labs were the places where they applied knowledge learned in science classes, the realm of extracurricular activities would likewise be the practical laboratory of the humanities.

“Students learn best by doing, and all education in the classroom was to have its counterpart outside the classroom. This was to be true both in the fields of the college farms and in the labs of the sciences as well as in the personal relations and institutions created by students which are the labs of the classical & liberal arts.”

“The wisdom of the ages was not simply to be memorized, but was to be brought alive by students in the University and town communities.”

Engaging, doing, forming character, building bonds of loyalty, and developing a common spirit of community were integral to a university education. Ben always implored students to not only vigorously interact with each other and form their own unique community, but also meaningfully engage with the rest of the broader university and town community.

Unless there’s an extracurricular brewer’s club on campus, what does any of this have to do with craft beer?

Like many I can personally attest, that the most intellectually stimulating and thought provoking conversations I had while at Penn State with peers, elders, mentors and mentored alike, were outside the classroom in informal settings. Participants in moderated campus debates scoring rhetorical talking points with media sound bites, or even in graduate colloquia trying to impress professors, didn’t come close. In the informal, there was a greater honesty to where you were coming from and going with your discussion or inquiry, without no agenda. You just wanted to casually but more deeply get to know the persons you’re engaging with, out of genuine curiosity.

Aside from projects and activities, almost all of these occasions involved either coffee or alcohol, the latter almost always with fine craft beer (not pounding cans of cheap flavorless macro-schlock beer or rounds of shots.) And it was in the course of these interactions where we truly learned over time to arrange our thoughts, refine our ideas and words and better deliver them, winning admiration of others and fostering bonds of friendship. Often you learned more from one another (young and old) about life and human nature than from any class. It all had a certain cultivating and civilizing effect.

A fun point Ben really ran with in the beer book was an NYT article by Solomon H. Katz, asserting that beer brewing may have civilized early modern man, because growing hops and malt grains necessitated agriculture and irrigation, moving man away from nomadic hunter-gathering. True or not, Ben drew a humorous corollary with our college town:

“Solomon H. Katz should be consulted by State College Police department. Cutting off the beer supply to college fraternities and apartments may reverse the course of civilization, causing students to revert to the stage of prehistoric hunters and gatherers.”

But seriously, we know most students will drink (even beer) primarily, if not entirely for the effect of inebriation, not as a lubricant for social enlightenment. The educational benefit is from the school of hard knocks when you’re taken to the hospital or wake up with a rancid hangover, or receive a citation and fine. Conversations, largely inane, are mostly forgotten, usually not worth remembering anyway. With limited funds, most college students will gladly sacrifice quality for quantity.

But this is precisely why both of Ben’s writings are all the more timely now. The State College Microbrewer’s Expo (an event not targeting students) previously held in the Penn Stater every summer used the motto “Drink Less, Drink the Best”. But to drink at all, let alone “the best” was never the message from campus health officials or administrators. Vice presidents and provosts making upwards of 6 figures or more would never dream of making that the next social norming campaign slogan while hobnobbing at cocktail parties.

In the beer book, Ben highlights a story decades ago from England, where big companies tried to buy out breweries and foist filtered, pasteurized bland beers with longer shelf life into the market to maximize profit. They only cared for volume sales, not uniquely brewed small-batch lively ales slowly savored in a pub culture cultivating a memorable experience. The whole effort backfired as people like Christopher Hutt and others exposed it in books, resulting in even more patronage of small pubs. Ben writes:

“There, beer is a civilizing drink and not a thirst quencher. Life without good beer in the neighborhood pub would be life without good conversation.”

“Hutt exposed the goal of the marketing people to turn the pubs into places to get tanked up, like a service station, rather than to enjoy good fellowship and good conversation.”

By this logic, PSU ought to have a pub in the Hub.

Ben also gave many historical examples of people’s interaction over quality ales. He harkened back to early America when the seeds of revolution fomented (and fermented) in colonial taverns and pubs (serving as early town halls) where the ales were as richly varied as in the English countryside. One column explained the Founding Fathers’ response (over rounds of Philadelphia porter) to the Whiskey Rebellion by subsequently lifting taxes on brewers so as to proliferate ales, hoping they would supplant hard liquor.

Discovering history through, or from a beer, and how varying styles were experienced is fascinating in itself. However, the most novel idea in the columns was to discover a brewer’s intent in a beer. Who drinks beer to find out what a brewer intended? There would have to be some remarkable flavor to even spark your curiosity. There is legend and lore to many small breweries, whether of their own stories or the themes for which their beers are brewed (such as Unibroue outside Montreal), teaching us lessons in history and human experience.

This brings us back to Ben’s essays on Penn State.

“To explore the real meaning of the university is to turn the pursuit of excellence into an adventure of mind and character.”

Brewing, enjoying, and soulfully engaging minds over excellence in craft beer is one example of that adventure – similar to the experience over coffee in the Penny Universities of 18th Century England.

‘Tis the season to reinvigorate that fellowship of mind and character, and that community of great minds and characters. In Is Penn State A Real University, Ben concluded that as a university community,

“to raise the intellectual tone of society, we must first be able to raise the intellectual tone of our own community. To dream of cultivating the public mind and purifying the national taste, we must first cultivate our own community’s mind, and uplift our own community’s taste.”

He didn’t mean beer taste per se, but it perfectly fits the concept analogously, and literally. Aiming the writings locally, these weren’t intended as abstract ideas for whoever would entertain them. They were a clarion call for motivated, self-starting students and local community to rediscover themselves and, among other things, their school’s rightful heritage of shared governance within the brave new administration-centered Penn State of the 1980’s. The spirit was not entirely unlike that of the colonials in the pubs in the late 1700’s fomenting over ales – not in the sense of forming a rebellion for confrontation, but forming a body (bonded by fellowship) to act in common spirit to go out and relive the type of rich character-forming university experience envisioned by the school’s founders.

At the same time beginning in the ‘80’s, the parallel with the new craft brew revolution was a rediscovery and remastering of old (and new) artisan brewing that had been lost since Prohibition, also forgotten by generations conditioned to accept mass-produced uniformity devoid of character and soul.

In both cases, rediscovering old ideas that seemed lost, Ben made them new again – now newly available for the world.

A toast…for the glory…of good fellowship!


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