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Brew school: Preparing students for the growing craft beer industry

Brew school: Preparing students for the growing craft beer industry


One of the building blocks of Wisconsin’s beer industry shares space with an ice cream lab and is located a floor above where master cheesemaker Gary Grossen crafts award-winning brick, Muenster and Gouda.

UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall is home to the Department of Food Science and the Center for Dairy Research, but a corner space in the building has been transformed into a brewery. The system is designed to teach basic food science principals, train and educate would-be brewers, allow professional brewers to experiment and for academics to conduct research.

The brewery, with the ability to brew 15 gallons at a time, arrived on campus in 2007 and was housed in the microbiology department. But for the last three years, the stainless steel system, donated by what is now MillerCoors for the university to bolster its fermentation program, has been housed in a building that is the center of the state’s dairy universe.

The university has been teaching fermentation for decades but just like the craft beer boom that is showing no signs of slowing, the university’s brewing program is growing.

University officials are reviewing a proposal that would allow students to earn a certificate in brewing, something that could be in place by the 2016-17 school year. Last week, a collaborative program with Wisconsin Brewing Co. in Verona began that will in the coming months take a student recipe to market.

The beer, a lager selected by a panel of judges, would allow the winning team of brewers to mass produce their beer with Kirby Nelson, WBC’s brewmaster, and use the brewery’s 80-barrel brewhouse. The beer would be distributed and sold this summer throughout the state, including at the Memorial Union.

Carl Nolen, WBC’s president and co-founder, said ultimately the program could include students from other departments such as marketing, graphics, business and legal. The plan is to make it an annual event with a new beer selected each year.

“It’s about real-life experiences and education,” Nolen said. “With 3,000 breweries in America and a couple thousand more in planning, the question down the road is going to be: ‘Where are all the employees going to come from?’ There’s going to need to be a shift with more programming available to students learning how to get into this, not just ‘I love beer’.”

In the late 1970s, fewer than 90 breweries operated in the country, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association. That number is now nearing 3,000 with the vast majority producing craft beer. In 2013, craft beer accounted for only 7.8 percent of the market share but the industry is shooting for 20 percent market share by 2020.

At Madison Area Technical College, the interest in two new brewing courses that started last week has been overwhelming, said Kevin Appleton, the school’s continuing education culinary director. The six-week courses in beer brewing/serving essentials and beer brewing science were created with the help of Ale Asylum co-founders Otto Dilba and Dean Coffey. A section scheduled to start in March is also full while Appleton expects registration for a June course to fill quickly once registration opens in April.

Students who pass both courses will be eligible for a brewing practicum course in which four small homebrewing systems will be constructed at the West Side campus. The course will allow students to brew under the guidance of professional brewers who have not yet been selected. Those who complete the courses will earn a craft brewing certificate, Appleton said.

“We’ve done everything we can to have a quality program,” said Appleton. “We want to prepare people who are going to make the jump into the industry to get those skills that industry people are going to be looking for.”

Courses like those just created at MATC, the Fermented Foods & Beverage course offered at UW-Madison and the collaboration project with WBC will help fill anticipated brewing industry jobs.

Andrew Lefeber, 22, a food science major from New Holstein and a homebrewer for the last three years, said being able to brew on the university’s brewing system is beneficial for his career. He’s also excited about the possibility of his beer being commercially produced.

“I’ve been homebrewing for a while, but getting on a commercial system is a big difference because it’s scalable,” Lefeber said. “A lot of problems you would run into in an industrial setting you would run into here. It prepares you for the industry.”

Hans Zoerb, who lectures on brewing in the Food Science program in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, said the potential is there for an innovative brewing center on campus. The state has a strong brewing history, the industry continues to grow, brewers are creating more complex beers and the university has the science base and experience with other programs to make it a success.

“The dairy side is our model,” Zoerb said, referring to the Center for Dairy Research. “That’s what we’re trying to get to.”

The university, with funding from the state’s wine industry, is in the process of hiring a specialist who will help winery and cider companies with microbial and quality issues, train winemakers how to detect off-flavors and give the industry access to labs and university experts.

James Steele, a Food Science professor, said he could see a day when the university hires a brewmaster to teach and be a resource for the state’s brewing industry. The brewing lab could also be home to short courses that could focus on myriad issues and topics that would be of interest to brewers and others in the industry.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is take what we’ve learned from working with the cheese industry for more than 125 years and do similar things for the beer, wine and cider industry,” Steele said. “Interacting with industry in the Department of Food Science is something that we do daily. We’d like to expand that to other parts of the fermented foods industry.”

When students arrived for Zoerb’s lecture last Wednesday in a first floor classroom at Babcock Hall, they listened to Zoerb talk about fermentation, hops and the conversion of acids to isoacids. He also advised students to keep detailed notes of recipes and procedures.

“Good scientists have a note pad in their hand. It’s really important that you do that,” Zoerb said, referring to a well-received milk stout created last year by a student but for which there was no documentation. “We’ll do a lot of bad beer tasting and a lot of good beer tasting. We hope you’ll become better brewers.”

Zoerb said none of the beer brewed will leave the building. A small amount will be tasted but the majority is dumped down the drain. The 18 students, 15 of whom are homebrewers, were also warned not to eat the ice cream in the shared walk-in cooler next to the brewing equipment that includes three fermentation tanks.

Jacob Perlson, 21, past president of the Badger Brewing Association, a student homebrewing club, is headed to medical school and likely won’t work in the brewing industry, but he jumped at the chance to take part in the collaborative brewing program.

“What’s most appealing about this class is the opportunity to have something you brew in the Union,” Perlson said. “That’s been the dream of some students in the club for a long time. It’s a really unique opportunity.”

Students will experiment with their recipes through February with brewing taking place under the guidance of an instructor just down the hall from Stephen Babcock’s wooden roll-top desk. They can use a variety of grains but must use a yeast selected by Nelson, who has more than 30 years of brewing experience, has won scores of awards for his beers and is a co-founder of Wisconsin Brewing Co. that opened in late 2013.

The winning brew must be red in color but attain that color not through dyes but with traditional brewing ingredients and practices, Zoerb said. The lager must be 5 percent or less in alcohol by volume and the name for the beer will need university approval, Steele said.

“I’ve given them a range of things, and they have to formulate it,” Nelson said. “Craft beers are here to stay. To me (the collaboration is) the next logical thing to start to get a more sophisticated potential work force entering the market.”


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