Monday, May 11, 2009

Brewing Education

Last year, MillerCoors donated a beautiful little brewing system to the UW Department of Bacteriology. Last Friday, I attended a brewing education summit to help the University figure out what do do with it. A healthy cross-section of brewing industry folks were there, and I felt that we were able to provide a lot of useful insight. Being there reminded me of my former life as an aerospace engineering student at the University of Michigan.

Back then, my undergraduate program was ranked #2 in the country (behind MIT) by some group that decides those sorts of things. After my third year of school, I was hired as the summer intern for an R&D department of a jet engine manufacturer. During my first day on the job, I shadowed one of the technicians as he disassembled an engine. Pointing to the next part to be removed, I asked "what's that?" "The high pressure compressor." There I was, one year away from supposedly being qualified to help design an engine, and I couldn't even identify one of its major components. As my co-workers taught me how to be an engineer over the next four years, I began to realize that my education was completely inadequate at preparing me for a job. If that's true for such a well-regarded program, is it true for most of them? Are the rankings out to lunch or do they measure something completely different?

Dan Carey (New Glarus) and Tom Porter (Lake Louie) seem to believe the same thing about formally-trained brewers, and they were able to articulate it much better than I could. Breweries need people who can fix broken shit. They need people who can weld. They need people who already know the difference between a pump's input and output fittings. They need people who can step into a new operation and physically produce wort, as opposed to being trained for a month while asking questions about things like optimizing enzyme activity. With a physical brewery in its Microbial Sciences Building, I think the University is in a great position to provide both theoretical knowledge and practical experience for future brewers. If it succeeds, the school's graduates will be very well-received by the industry.


Patrick said...

So, how would one go about getting in on the ground floor of this practical brewing education?

Joe said...

For the UW program in particular, I'm not sure. It's currently only offered as a semester course, and you need to be some sort of biology or organic chemistry major (I think) to enroll.

For brewing in general, I think the best thing you can do is apply for assistant brewer positions at brewpubs. The turnover at those jobs is pretty high (in large part because the pay is crap) so you should be able to find one with naught but a passion for beer, a willingness to work hard and an easygoing attitude about getting filthy. If you decide to pursue a formal brewing education, having worked in a commercial brewery will really help the material sink in.

Shane said...

As a chemical engineer, I can sympathize with your intern experience. How the hell was I supposed to know what a distillation column looks like? We just drew them like rectangles in class.

It really goes to show that all engineers should have a welding/plumbing/wiring class as a prereq in their first 4 years. "Intro to Fixing Shit That's Broke"