August 19, 2002 12:00 PM

The combustion engine? Okay, that was a good one. Penicillin? Useful. But for those who love suds, the invention of the millennium has finally arrived—freeze-dried beer. Two Purdue University seniors have found a way to turn beer into a powder that can be rehydrated into a beverage and, more importantly, used as a beer-flavored seasoning on popcorn and pizza.

The brains behind it are beer-loving Luke Meyers and teetotaler Michelle Kelly, who came up with the idea as a project for their Food Plant Design and Economics class. Explains Kelly: “Luke thought it would be neat to say his senior project was beer.”

With help from their professor Martin R. Okos, 56, the pair devised a process that removes the alcohol from beer, freeze-dries it and grinds it down. Their innovation was incorporating a step called freeze concentration, which removes water before freeze-drying and cuts costs (the powder can then be rehydrated and recarbonated). When Okos first tried the powder, “it tasted,” he says, “like beer.”

After that eureka moment, they tried their creation on relatives. “My mom’s thrilled with it,” says Meyers, 23, a native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who, like Kelly, graduated in May and is job hunting in the food-processing industry. “Every weekend my family’s asking for more.” A patent application will soon be submitted, while a Wisconsin manufacturer has expressed interest in what would be the first mass-marketed beer seasoning.

If it flies, the inventors will split royalties with Okos and Purdue. Kelly, 22, raised in Ohio and recently married, is thinking big. “Why not beer potato chips?” she envisions. “And if they can make it stick to nuts, you’d have actual beer nuts.” We’ll drink—or sprinkle—to that.

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