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Crafting a career in brewing

CMU’s fermentation science program taps into growing market in Michigan and beyond

Contact: Curt Smith


​​​​​By Terri Finch Hamilton, ’83
Reprinted from Centralight Spring 2016​​

At Lansing Brewing Co., head brewer Sawyer Stevens, '12, describes his signature brew, the Amber Cream Ale, and we dare you not to crave an ice cold pint right now.

"It's smooth and a little bit caramelly," Sawyer says, taking a break from his brewing duties. It has hints of toasted malt, a silky finish and a taste of history – this is the beer the original Lansing Brewing Co. served in 1897, before Prohibition closed its doors.

A couple hundred miles away in Chicago, Kevin Cary, '06, tells about the popular craft beers at Begyle Brewing Co., a place he's co-owned since 2011.

Begyle Blonde Ale is an easy-drinking beer that uses honey from a farm just west of Chicago, he says, and Hophazardly "smells just like a fresh grapefruit."

Cary's come a long way from his home-brewing days, bubbling up beer in his off-campus apartment while studying​ accounting at CMU.

Both brewers learned the art and science of craft beer brewing on the job, soaking up skills from experienced brewers.

Now that CMU has a fermentation science program to offer formal training in the craft they love, these beer-loving alums say cheers – it couldn't come at a better time.

Tapping into excitement over craft brewing

The craft beer industry is exploding, both in Michigan and around the country.

In 2014, craft brewing in Michigan contributed $1.85 billion in economic impact, up 84 percent from two years earlier, according to the Denver-based Brewers Association, an industry trade group.

Nationwide, craft breweries contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014 and resulted in more than 424,000 jobs, according to the Brewers Association.

CMU alumni involved in the craft beer industry say it's keeping them hopping. They could use more skilled brewers. Clink your glasses – here they come.

CMU's new one-year, 16-credit certificate program in fermentation science includes a mix of biochemistry, chemistry and microbiology, with lecture-based and hands-on laboratory courses that cover brewing from farm to glass.​

"The industry needs skilled manpower. So this new CMU program is a good development."

 Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild​​

​Students also complete a 200-hour internship. The program includes a unique partnership with two Mount Pleasant brewing companies, including Hunter's Ale House, where students brew their own beer on site.

Want to taste it? Head on over.

All of this comes at a perfect time, says Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild, the nonprofit trade association representing the craft brewing industry in Michigan.

"As this industry continues to grow, where will all the resources come from?" Graham says. "The industry needs skilled manpower. So this new CMU program is a good development. More and more people will be employed by the beer industry in Michigan – not just brewers, but in sales and administration, packaging, production of hops, too."

Michigan-made beers account for 6.5 percent of all the beer sold in Michigan, Graham says.

"I think it will go past 20 percent," he says. "The growth has been increasing, and it will continue to grow."

The art and science of brewing

Graham learned the craft of brewing at the world-renowned Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago in the 1990s. He served as an apprentice at the Frankenmuth Brewery under Fred Scheer, a German-trained master brewer, so Graham knows the importance of hands-on training.

CMU's partnership with Mount Pleasant breweries for real-life brewing experience is a great idea, he says.

"You need a lot of technical know-how," Graham says. "Making beer may sound glamorous and charming, but a brewer is a highly trained, highly skilled janitor. Everything has to be extremely clean and sanitary. That's a big part of it."

The more training, the better, he says.

"It's good for beer and good for beer quality."

Exactly, says Cordell DeMattei, CMU's director of fermentation science.

"It's easy to turn away a new beer drinker if they pick up a beer that's not good," DeMattei says. "Our goal is to provide quality brewers who make quality beers to help the industry be even better."

The job potential for graduates of the program is huge, he says.

"It's amazing how many breweries have opened up, and there's no end in sight."

Back at the Lansing Brewing Co., Sawyer Stevens says CMU's program will make it easier for the graduates to get a foot in the door at breweries in an increasingly competitive market.

"When I started out, people were mostly learning on the job," he says. "Soon, there'll be more of a call for people with more formal education.

"It's a complex science," he says of brewing. "More formal training lends legitimacy and helps to show we're a serious industry. Sure, it's fun, but you're in it to sustain a business. You have to be serious."

Beer lovers know what they like, but they don't often understand all that goes into their favorite brew, Stevens says.

"There are so many fine details that make up the big picture," he says. "Fermentation time, temperature, yeast cell count. Knowing how to manipulate the process if something goes wrong. There's a whole lot of cleaning and sanitation. You need this perfect mix of physical and intellectual skills. You have to do both."

Consistency is crucial, DeMattei points out. Learning that is a big part of the program.

"It's not that difficult to make good beer once, but to do it repeatedly takes a lot of skill," he says. "You're dealing with varied ingredients with each crop. You need to know how to adjust to make the beer taste the same each time."

Wine, anyone?

Right now the fermentation science program focuses on craft beer, but DeMattei says it could expand to the production of wine and spirits, too.

"That's why we call the program fermentation science and not craft brew science," he says.

That's good news for CMU alumni Marta Dennis, '76, and Tim Dennis, '88, owners of Walloon Lake Winery in Petoskey.

After decades working in education, the couple opened the family-run winery in 2014.

They grow cold-hardy grapes and produce about 15 wines, including their popular Randall's Point Red, with a hint of cinnamon and the fruity Blackbird Blackberry that smells like blackberry cobbler.

Now, they're in the process of getting their beer license and may send their son to CMU's program so they can add craft beer to their lineup.

"We decided it would be nice to have both," Marta says. "Sometimes a couple comes in and the wife really loves wine, but the husband would rather have a beer."

While the craft beer industry flourishes, it hasn't exactly left wineries in the dust, Marta says.

"We're just a small, family owned winery, but we've been overwhelmingly busy," she says.

"If CMU ends up offering a certification for wine, a lot of wineries will be looking for people like that," Tim says. "You always need more help."


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