Wednesday, May 27, 2009

UW Brewing Summit

Back on May 8th the University of Wisconsin held a "brewing summit". As you may know, the University received a generous donation from MillerCoors of one test-batch brewing system. It's about a 5-10 gallon brewing system that is mostly automated. It has a separate mash and lauter tuns (if I remember correctly, I might be wrong about that), whirlpool (I think), kettle, and a really nice filter. Otherwise, it looks like any other science lab with a garbage can of spent grains in the corner. The system was donated back in September of 2008 and the first class has come to a finish.

The Summit was called for two purposes. Firstly, it was called to get the opinion of industry as to what to do with this equipment. Secondly, it was a good opportunity to let some folks in the industry drink some beer brewed on the system!

Taking the second part first, the beer was good! Surprisingly good. For the most part these students had little to no prior brewing experience and they managed to put together some pretty decent beers across the spectrum: a scotch ale, an amber, a pale ale, a lager, a light lager, and a porter. All of which were drinkable, some of which were pretty darn good.

The first issue raised some pretty interesting discussion. In attendance were a number of brewers and assistant brewers, some education folks from the University, some independent industry training people, and a few miscellaneous others. It was a wide range of people from whom to cull an opinion. Just about every market segment from Lake Louie-sized to Miller was represented. And two questions were put this group:

1) Now that the University has this equipment, what do they do with it?
2) What does the brewing community want from the University?

The first topic is interesting for a few reasons, one of which is for the pure voyeur aspect into the University's internal procedures. For instance, the problem is this: you can only do a "temporary class" for two years, then you have to either make a full-time class or change it in some meaningful way. This policy keeps "test classes" from staying test classes forever. What this means for the brewing program is: there is a limited time to figure this stuff out. In this regard, it becomes necessary to figure out if this will remain a University-accredited course or if it becomes some sort of private or quasi-private enterprise.

A few options were discussed: using the equipment for university accredited course in brewing, use the equipment for industry-funded or university-based research, or open the equipment up to the public and educate the general public on brewing. Of course, none of these are mutually exclusive and it sounds like at least some variety of each of them will be implemented in some meaningful way. But the core of the discussion looked past what to do with the equipment itself and looked more at how this equipment can be used to provide useful members of the brewing industry.

Three options rose to the surface for how to implement a program that would be useful to the midwest brewing industry specifically, but the national or global brewing industry in general. This is also where it was useful to have the wide range of opinions all at one table. On the one end you have a brewing company like Miller who are looking to train brewers to head up new (or recently acquired) breweries in central Africa. On the other end are breweries like Lake Louie who are constantly training a quasi-itinerant workforce to be not just brewers but janitors and engineers. For these smaller breweries this is a lot of time, money, and more importantly, energy that is expended to train someone to work in a brewery just to have that person leave for another brewery (and brewers frequently move around, especially early in their careers).

It was interesting, then, to note the split between the large breweries and the small breweries and the needs of each and what the job description of "brewer" encompasses. First and foremost the brewer is a scientist - a strong understanding not just of fermentation sciences, but malting, and agriculture and how all of these come together to create something unique and interesting. But more than just the hands-on nature of brewing, there is a laboratory aspect to being a brewer as well - knowing how to propagate yeast strains and keep them alive and fresh is crucial knowledge; not to mention how the yeasts interact with the enzymes and sugars created by the malting and mashing processes. But more than than the brewer is an engineer. And not an engineer in the nerdy "draw the distillation column as a square on the flowchart" way, but in the practical "Oh crap my chiller is f-ed and this 32 barrels of beer will go bad if I can't fix this is under an hour" way. It requires not just mechanical engineering knowledge, but the skills to weld and solder and deconstruct and construct things - to troubleshoot. Brewers are also businesspeople who need to know the business and legal climate that their brewery operates in.

So, the bigger question put to the summit was how to accommodate this need for trained people who can be useful with minimum expense. Three options were put forth: 1) operate a brewing school as a department within the university (this would be fairly unique); 2) operate as an entity separate from the university and coordinate a series of short training classes that provide specific knowledge in a short (e.g. 2 weeks to 1 month) time span (similar to the Siebel Institute in Chicago); 3) combine the two and operate a school-like certification and advanced degree in brewing (like the UC Davis Brewing Extension).

While nothing was signed in writing, it certainly sounds like the industry is leaning towards a UC Davis-like program that is heavy on practical knowledge by implementing internships and apprenticeships with breweries and malting facilities in the region. It would coordinate actual classroom science classes (fermentation sciences, enzyme sciences, and engineering sciences) with laboratory time (the UW brewing facility) and real-world internships.

Don't kid yourself these internships wouldn't be "stand around and test beer all day" but the nuts and bolts of running a brewery - fixing pumps, sweeping, scrubbing, bottling, scrubbing, bottling, sweeping, fixing bottling lines, bottling, and, yeah, maybe helping to put grain into a mash tun and hops into the kettle. All for little to no money, maybe some course credit, but, really, the chance to work in an industry that consumers don't, for the most part, have any understanding of or appreciation for.

So, in the coming months and years this brewing program will begin to take shape. One of the few things that was agreed on by all is that something here in the Midwest is necessary. There are so many breweries here, and the industry is growing so quickly that one school (UC Davis) isn't enough.

An interesting aside from this whole conversation is that it turns out that the UW was approached about doing this exact sort of program back in the early 1970s and the University's chancellors turned it down because it didn't want the University associated with alcohol. How's that for some schadenfreude?

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like an incredible oppourtunity and a lot of work on behalf of the University. This industry is growing so fast that it would be a great idea to create a UC Davis like program here in the Midwest, but I can understand any hesitation as programs like that don't grow overnight.

    On the other hand, having the option to have more community based brewing classes alongside the credited brewing program would be huge. I for one would be very excited to be able to take a four week intro course on brewing. Maybe the end result of which would give me the skills necessary to create some great and interesting homebrews and appreciate the work of established craft brewers even more.

    I'll be interested to hear what they do with this opportunity. Thanks for sharing.



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