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HOBART | Drinking is a common experience at most colleges, but it's the complete focus of Wise Guys University.

More than 1,000 students have enrolled in Wise Guys Discount Liquor's educational program, which recently marked two years and graduated its first class of Ph.Ds. The liquor store chain, an offshoot of the WiseWay Foods supermarkets, launched the program to build customer loyalty and educate customers about wine, liquor and craft beer. 

The tuition-free program is open to anyone 21 or older. Martin Oleksy with Chicago-based Moto Media helped develop Wise Guys University as an alternative way to encourage customers to make repeat visits.

Indiana law forbids liquor stores from offering coupons like Binny's Beverage Depot in Chicago, so they had to come up with another way to get customers to keep coming back instead of straying to competitors, Oleksy said. The university idea was born.

Customers who are "thirsty for knowledge" can get an "education in moderation" at weekly tastings and special events where they can listen to vintners and craft brewers talk shop. They can earn credits at their own pace toward bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and Ph.Ds 

When earning all three Wise Guys degrees, Rick Parente wore the same black gown and graduation cap his son did when he graduated from Lowell High School. 

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"You have to buy it, but when else are you going to wear it?" he said. "It was fun."

He started attending Wise Guys University tastings and classes with his wife at the Wise Guys in Merrill Point in Crown Point. They would have a few tastes and learn about new wines and beers before going out to dinner on Friday evening. They made new friends and got to learn about different wine-making regions. 

They also had the opportunity to win freebies, including a football cooler, a stadium seat and gift cards.

"I got to taste things I might not otherwise try," he said. "It's a really nice social event for a Friday night now that we no longer have kids in high school and don't go to the basketball games. It's a nice atmosphere."

Recent classes at the Merrill Point and Hobart location across from the Southlake Mall have featured Greg Norman wines and Cutters Brewing Co.

For information, visit wiseguysliquors.com/wgu.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.