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Aspiring Craft Brewers Hit The Books To Pick Up Science Chops

Central Michigan University has announced a new certificate program in "fermentation science," and James Holton's company, Mountain Town Station Brewing Co., will help give CMU students hands-on brewing experience.
Steve Jessmore
Central Michigan University via AP
Central Michigan University has announced a new certificate program in "fermentation science," and James Holton's company, Mountain Town Station Brewing Co., will help give CMU students hands-on brewing experience.

Here's how popular craft brewed beer is these days: On average, a new brewery opens its doors every single day in the the U.S.

More colleges and universities are taking notice, adding brewing minors, certificates and even four-year programs. That means the campus science building might soon rival the basement as an incubator for brew pubs. While formal brewing education isn't new, only a few schools have been offering it.

Now Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., says it's going to offer a four-year program in "Sustainable Craft Brewing," which will focus on good water management. It will be rigorous, according to the university, and students will have to take many of the same science classes as their peers in the premedical program. WMU will be one of at least three colleges in the state offering a brewing certification track.

Mark Sammartino of the Master Brewers Association in North Carolina says students in the U.S. will soon have more than a dozen college-based brewing programs to choose from.

"We puttered along for a long time with, one or two or three or four of these things and all of a sudden ... it's now taking off," says

And as many as 40 more schools might start their own degree programs in the near future.

"If we get to a point where there's too much of either the breweries or the education, you know, where's the break point," he says. "But at the moment, I'm not worried about that, I think we have a long way to go to catch up."

At the Boatyard Brewing Company in Kalamazoo, carbon dioxide is bubbling out of a tank as yeast ferments a batch of beer. Co-founder Brian Steele says that's a happy sound.

"When we first started here we probably pitched $10,000 worth of beer," he says. "And most of that cause was, I didn't treat my yeast as nicely as I should have. So now they are my best friends and I name all 100 trillion of them."

Steele didn't study brewing in college. He started at home, and then practiced for years at an established brewery. You do need a good palate to make good beer — you can't just ferment your favorite foods.

"We've seen it all over beer festivals, you know, bacon-jalapeno-chocolate-infused IPA. And then you drink it and you go, 'Why would anyone do that?' " he asks.

You also need business sense and a taste for the technical. Beer might have only four basic ingredients: water, hops, grain and yeast. But Steele says a professional brewery runs a lot like a lab.

"While a lot of craft brewers will kind of pooh-pooh Budweiser, you've got to be impressed with the fact that no matter where you buy their beer on the planet, it always tastes the same," he says. "That is exceptionally difficult to do."

Steele says he likes the idea of packaging that knowledge into one degree. He says as his business grows, he wants to hire workers who already have brewing skills — workers like Ryan Hamilton, who plans to study sustainable brewing in college this fall.

"A lot of my knowledge that I've gained through the industry has been instructive through like kind of an apprentice-style system, or self-taught or learned through trial and error, but what I'm looking for now is a deeper and more intense knowledge and training of fermentation sciences," Hamilton says.

While people have been making beer for thousands of years, science has transformed it. And students who set out to learn the science of beer might just end up improving science itself.

Brewers have helped to shape fields from microbiology to statistics. And you can thank beer for the pH scale — the chemist who created it worked for the Danish brewer Carlsberg.

Copyright 2015 WMUK

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.