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Beer is the favored alcoholic beverage of college students across the country.

And at Wagner College on Staten Island, you will you find professors helping college students make their own beer — all, of course, in the interests of science.

The Wagner brewing experiment is the brainchild of anthropology professor Celeste Marie Gagnon, who has focused her research on the people of the Moche Valley, who lived in coastal Peru between 400 B.C. and 800 A.D. She has tried to learn as much as she can about the way the Moche people lived by employing the methods of a specialized discipline known as bioarchaeology — the study of an ancient peoples’ remains.

One of the things Gagnon and her colleagues look for in the bones and teeth of ancient peoples is the kind of oxygen left in them. The proportion of “heavy” to “light” oxygen in drinking water varies based on climatic conditions and location of the source. So bioarchaeologists have often interpreted differences in the amount of heavy oxygen found in teeth, formed in childhood, and in bones, which continue to form throughout an individual’s life, as evidence of migration.

But, according to Gagnon, that interpretation may not sufficiently account for one major factor in human life: “People cook. In fact, some research suggests that our digestive systems have been shaped by evolution to require cooking,” she said. “And cooking might affect the kind of oxygen found in much of the water that people end up consuming.”

And that’s where the beer comes in.

The brewing of domestic beer — chicha — has been a part of traditional cultures in South and Central America for millennia. Gagnon came up with an experiment to test whether brewing chicha would produce the proportion of heavy to light oxygen that might look like the proportion which migrating people would have as a result of drinking different water sources in different locations.

Gagnon joined forces with chemistry professor Nicholas Richardson and two senior undergraduates, Jennifer Ida of Staten Island and Brandi Adduce of Lititz, Pa. Using an ancient recipe adapted to modern circumstances and materials, they brewed a couple of batches of corn chicha over a 2-day span earlier this week.

Chicha has a fairly short fermentation period — about 3 days — so, on Friday afternoon, a batch will be uncorked, and these Wagner College students and their professors will see what has come of their ancient home brewing experiment.
Stay tuned for the results!


Pam Silvestri, the food editor for the Staten Island Advance, dropped in at
the Wagner College lab when the chicha experiment was uncorked.
To download a PDF of her complete story, click on the page image at left, or CLICK HERE.

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