Back to School for Beer: Brewing for Grades

By Anne-Fitten Glenn

I attended college 20 years too early. Back then, not many folks brewed their own beer, and students certainly weren’t asked to do so in order to earn a passing grade. Nowadays, however, there are a number of colleges, universities and culinary schools offering classes and even degrees in beer and brewing.

As interest in brewing and craft beer has increased in the U.S., there’s been a corresponding explosion in beer education. More and more students are studying the science, art, and business of beer in hopes of landing a job in this burgeoning industry.

The Future of Brewing Schools: Appalachian State University’s Fermentation Science Degree

Last spring, I was invited to Boone, N.C., to judge a homebrew competition. These weren’t just any homebrews; these beers were brewed by 12 students as part of their final exam in The Science, History and Business of Beer and Brewing course at Appalachian State University (ASU).

“Really, I’m fooling students into learning chemistry,” says Brett Taubman, the professor who developed and teaches the class. “I think the students are having a great time and learning a lot. And nothing’s blown up yet, which is always good.”

Taubman has taught the class twice, and interest has been so high that ASU assistant professor Seth Cohen is now developing a four-year degree program in Fermentation Science. The course of study has been approved by ASU and should be reviewed by the university system this fall.

The program includes beer and brewing science courses, research, and even examines alternative energy options for breweries. Cohen also says there will be coursework on starting and managing a business (aka, a brewery or brewpub).

“A lot of us [universities] have a brewing course, food science course or a micro-biology class that incorporates fermentation,” Taubman says. “But, this program’s unique. We’re developing the only stand-alone four-year fermentation program as far as I know.”

The two schools that come the closest are the University of California at Davis (UC-Davis) and Oregon State University (OSU), which both have fermentation specialties within their food science degree programs. UC-Davis’ extension campus also offers its renowned Master Brewer and Professional Brewer programs.

Advantages of Beer School

Erica Nelson, a graduate of the UC-Davis Master Brewer program, oversees quality control and assurance at Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, N.C.

“I didn’t have any work experience in the brewing industry,” Nelson says. “So I wouldn’t have gotten this position if I hadn’t gone to UC-Davis. I probably would’ve started by scrubbing out kegs.”

Nelson is the first beer-degree holder hired by the brewery, although, in the past, the business paid to send two of its brewers to beer school—one to the Seibel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy in Chicago and one to the Master Brewer program at UC-Davis.

“From the very beginning, when we could ill-afford it, we felt it was important to have someone with that extra knowledge here,” says Oscar Wong, president and founder of Highland Brewing. “I think it makes a difference.”

Taubman notes that one of his former students now works at Foothills Brewing Company in Winston-Salem, N.C., and another is working to open his own craft brewery.

“One of the main reasons for developing these programs is to help students find employment after college,” Taubman says.

And, that’s not limited to 22-year-olds. In our weak economy, re-schooling has become a viable option for those of us who already have degrees.

“I get e-mails all the time from non-traditional students who are out of work or tired of working in their industries and are looking to start their own business,” Cohen says.

That said, Taubman notes that a student with a four-year degree may still start at the low end of the brewery ladder as chief keg cleaner.

Cohen came to ASU from Oregon State’s program, and says, “You can’t send out 20 students a year and expect them all to get brewer jobs.”

However, having a degree or even some coursework in fermentation science can open up a number of other employment options, including work in pharmaceuticals, distilling and the food industry.

The ASU course of study requires some serious science pre-requisites, but there are other ways for students to get their brew on.

Ivory Tower Brewery: Students in Action

Taubman, his students and other ASU faculty are starting a microbrewery, Ivory Tower Brewery, with the blessing of North Carolina’s university system. The educational, non-profit group has applied for their federal production license, and in a few months, Boone residents (and visitors to the area) could be drinking student-brewed Ivory Tower beer.

Proceeds from sales of the beer will go back into the brewery and to the ASU’s beer program. Taubman says they plan to brew year-round on a small scale as they don’t want to compete with the businesses that may hire their students. Ivory Tower will give students the opportunity to work as interns and on special projects within a working brewery.

One of Taubman’s former students, Nathan Kelischek, is constructing the fermenters and heating and cooling systems for the new brewery and says he can’t wait to brew there.

“The reason I started doing this is because it’s such a neat educational tool for teaching great science. It’s so inherently interdisciplinary and hands-on,” Taubman says. “And I get to make good beer at the same time. That doesn’t suck either.”

Louisiana State University & Tin Roof Brewing Company

This kind of experiential learning is key when it comes to a subject like beer. Louisiana State University has recently partnered with Tin Roof Brewing Company to brew its own “school” beer. Food science and business faculty and students have been working with the brewery to produce, brand and market the beer, which should be for sale in time for football season. In addition to giving students hands-on experience, it’s a creative way to generate some extra revenue for the school.

I was definitely impressed with the ASU student brews. From a dry-hopped IPA to a classic Oatmeal Stout, they were all quaffable and solid.

And while I wish brewing had been part of the curriculum when I was at university, I suppose I can always go back to school—and start drinking for credit.

Learn about other opportunities to take your beer and brewing education to the next level by visiting the Beer Schools page of Beerology.