This is not your uncle’s beer class. While the idea of studying alcohol might raise a chuckle from past students who studied the bottom of a bottle after class, it’s a serious business at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. And by business, we mean an actual business. WKU and Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. have teamed up to build a working production brewery on campus that serves as a laboratory for students enrolled in the school’s new program in Brewing and Distilling Arts & Sciences.
The multidisciplinary certificate offered by the program is designed to complement an existing major in a related field by providing a background understanding of the science, business and history related to the brewing and distilling industries, along with an internship. A student graduating with this certificate is equipped to become competitive in the marketplace.
And the marketplace is booming. A study conducted by Alltech puts the count of craft breweries worldwide at 10,000—with more than 4,000 of those in the United States.
That’s a nearly 20 percent growth over last year. Distilling is booming, too: Bourbon is a $3 billion industry in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, generating more than 15,400 jobs. And production of our native spirit has increased more than 170 percent since 1999.
It seems strange that Kentucky—bourbon’s birthplace and originator of 95 percent of the world’s bourbon—wouldn’t already have a program in place to prepare aspiring distillers and brewers. But the industry has changed in recent years, says Pete Weiss, marketing manager for Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. “And more recently, people are wanting to open their own craft distillery as much as craft breweries. They need to have the business sense along with the background … At the end of the day, they not only brew and distill but also run the business behind it.
“The idea of increasing education came when [Alltech founder] Dr. Lyons realized there was no formal degree here in brewing and distilling,” Weiss says. Pearse Lyons, an Irishman, earned a master’s degree in brewing and a Ph.D. in yeast fermentation in England. “Distilling is one of Kentucky’s largest exports; it’s what we’re known for,” Weiss continues. While people going into the field typically would have biology or chemistry degrees, there was no real degree specific to the industry, he adds. “That’s what this program does teach. It is a combination of business, science and hands-on training.”
So how did it come about? WKU President Gary Ransdell and Lyons struck up a conversation when they ran into each other, Weiss explains. “Dr. Lyons talked about our brewing and distilling academy we were trying to launch, and the issues with accreditation, credentials that would mean something in the industry. The next week, Dr. Ransdell and his team of folks walked in and said, ‘We’re serious. We want you to build your brewery on campus.’
“We didn’t have tanks at the time, but as fate should have it, a brewery that was closing called us up and asked us to buy their tanks. So we had space, tanks and staff to make it happen right then and there. When Dr. Lyons sees an opportunity, he steps up to make it happen. President Randsell, too.” The conversation happened in fall of 2015. “By March 2016,” Weiss says, “we had a brewery up and running.”
While the brewery, located in WKU’s Center for Research and Development, serves as a laboratory for students, “it really is a true craft brewery,” Weiss says. “It’s not just a college lab they’re doing pretend work at. It’s an actual production brewery. They can go see their product in a major retail environment. We want students to take pride in what they’re creating, what they’re making. And to take that experience and go to any craft brewery in America and say, ‘I’ve seen the marketing, sales, hands-on brewing’ and apply that.” Even if it’s Alltech’s competition? Yes, Weiss says. “We want the industry to grow as a whole.”
Although the brewery is completely run by Alltech and headed up by one of its top brewers, Joe Walls (the students can’t legally brew beer), the experience of learning from a master brewer is invaluable.
Take the problems that pop up in the day-to-day operation of running a brewery—when the pH balance is off, for instance, or fermentation isn’t happening like it should, or filters clog up, it’s a teaching moment for Walls. Then there’s understanding the difference in malts, and working with yeast—it’s “a living, breathing thing that can act differently every time you touch it,” Weiss says. “As much as it is a science, it is an art. They have to feel what will go right.”
Besides those nuances, students learn the nuts and bolts of how the machines work. “From an Alltech perspective, from a brewery side, it’s hands-on experience on equipment,” Weiss says. “It can put a brewer way ahead of the game coming into the industry. We’ve got employees who started out on home brewers, working on 5 gallons with no automation. Our new system [which is 310 gallons] is completely automated top to bottom, [so for them] it’s learning all over again.” For students, gaining this real-world experience is “getting one step ahead” in their career, he says.
Their experience also includes developing products to take to market. Since opening the campus brewery, “we’ve had an IPA come out, a big imperial stout, and those are things that Joe can bounce ideas off students coming in there,” Weiss says. And in July 2016, the brewery released College Heights Ale. Named for WKU’s anthem and featuring the campus’ iconic clock tower on the label, the beer is available at Kroger stores across Kentucky, Weiss says, along with Meijer and Liquor Barn, with expansion plans in Nashville.
Part of the proceeds from sales of the brew go back to WKU, Weiss says. “We want it to be not just a tool for teaching but a way to make money.” And it’s succeeding. Kroger stores usually rotate their beer selections after a quarter, he says: “The fact that they kept it on is good news.” Not surprisingly, it’s especially popular locally. “It has definitely taken off in Bowling Green.”
The program is unique in its field. While “there are a couple other programs with smaller breweries on campus, this is really the only one able to produce the volume we are as well as distribute,” Weiss says. “If it was at full kick, we could brew 10,000 barrels a year.”
The program just launched in 2016, but successes are already coming. “We actually hired a student from the first batch of classes that went through,” Weiss says. The science major was such a hit at the brewery, she’s now the Bowling Green sales rep for the company. It’s not just brewers and distillers that come out of the program—the industry needs professionals in marketing and sales as well. And more successes can have even greater impact, says Weiss. “If we can get Kentucky on the map for craft brewing and distilling … when people think about these industries, they think Colorado, North Carolina, the coast. If we can draw more people in, that could develop new techniques.”
So what does education in brewing and distilling look like? Take a peek at WKU’s program description:
“Humans have been brewing alcohol since the dawn of recorded history, and distilling stretches back over a thousand years. Brewing and distilling play a major role in the Kentucky and U.S. economy. Industries as diverse as farming, tourism, construction, and retail all rely on, and contribute to, alcohol production.”
Students take four courses for the certificate.
BDAS 300—The Science of Fermentation in Brewing and Distilling is an intensive introductory study of the science of fermentation … with particular application to brewing and distilling.
ENT 312—This class is an introduction to entrepreneurship. It examines the entrepreneur as the basic building block of the economic system via the discovery or identification of opportunities. Emphasis is placed on identifying and defending feasible opportunities within the industry and market, while recognizing and managing the complex systems in which entrepreneurs live and work that motivate or constrain innovation.
HIST 341—A Cultural History of Alcohol examines the history of brewing and distilling and takes a close look at the role alcohol plays in the historical development among various world cultures over time.
BDAS 495—Internship in Brewing/Distilling is a variable-credit internship placement in a sector of the brewing or distilling industry, under the supervision of the program coordinator and local personnel. Experience could include but is not limited to brewing, distilling, marketing, management or other industry-related work. It can be repeated for up to six credit hours.
Intrigued? Take a closer look at A Cultural History of Alcohol—known on campus as Beer Class.
“The intent of this course is not to study the history of beer or bourbon or any individual kind of liquor,” the syllabus from professor Andrew McMichael begins, “but rather let us analyze the social and cultural connections in various societies across time and space. From the Ancient Greeks and Romans to Ancient Japan to English and American Puritans to the American Revolution, alcohol played a major role in how those societies constructed relationships that were both interpersonal and that crossed national boundaries.”
The course explores a number of questions, it goes on, “using alcohol as a lens through which to examine people. How did alcohol shape the events prior to the American Revolution? How did Americans’ relationship with alcohol change over time? Why Prohibition? Most importantly, what was the meaning of drink and drinking over the course of world history?”
Required readings include The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition by W.J. Rorabaugh, and articles such as “Bootlegging Mothers and Drinking Daughters: Gender and Prohibition in Butte, Montana” in American Quarterly; “The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies, 1650-1775” in The Journal of Economic History; and “The ‘Poor Man’s Club’: Social Functions of the Urban Working-Class Saloon” in American Quarterly.
In the final exam, students answer questions such as: “Analyze the gendered use of alcohol among Native Americans, using the readings for this unit as a basis for your argument.”
Anyone else ready for a drink?