For UNC grad Chelsea Lawler (BS-15), the science behind a bottle of beer goes well beyond a matter of ingredients and requires a chemist’s touch as much as an artisan’s.
UNC's new brewing science program serves up chemistry and beer with an innovative, interdisciplinary approach.
By Joshua Zaffos, Photography by Woody Myers
Chelsea Lawler starts her workday with a hot cup of coffee and a warm flask of beer. A chemistry technician at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Lawler collects samples from the craft brewery’s tanks each morning to run through a gas chromatographer for analysis. Lawler measures the concentration of diacetyl, a chemical compound produced during fermentation that can sometimes give a funky, off-flavor to beers. When the numbers look right, she signs off on moving batches from primary to secondary fermentation tanks, a critical step on the way to producing beer.
Lawler takes a careful look at a sample as she evaluates batch quality at New Belgium.
“Beer can change batch by batch,” says Lawler, speaking inside New Belgium’s analytical laboratory, where benches of pricey precision equipment and chemistry kits more closely resemble an environmental testing center or university doctoral student research space than part of a brewery. But maintaining quality control and assurance is a big — if overlooked — part of brewing and bottling tasty and consistent-tasting beers. Temperatures, alcohol content, IBUs (a measure of bitterness), hop aroma, color and specific gravity can all fluctuate, Lawler explains, and her job is to make sure that a New Belgium Fat Tire is — from a chemist’s point of view — a Fat Tire.
Lawler landed her job after an internship with New Belgium the previous year — and completing coursework through the University of Northern Colorado’s new Brewing Laboratory Science Program. While brewing may be an emerging trend for academic programs, UNC’s program is unique: It prepares chemistry majors and others for jobs in quality control and assurance at breweries. No other university program offers a similar curriculum in brewing science, says Michael Mosher, chair and professor of UNC’s chemistry and biochemistry department who created the program with colleagues.
A chemist and homebrewer, Mosher crafted and developed UNC’s new Brewing Laboratory Science program as part of Innovation@UNC, an initiative aimed at creative programs and approaches at UNC.
“Many of the programs in the country happen to produce people who are master brewers. We thought about going a different way and instead creating a kind of niche to produce people who can work as technicians in the laboratories and quality-control sector,” Mosher says. “It is a great way to not only attract more students to the university, but also help out the microbreweries, craft breweries and even the larger breweries by producing students who are qualified to work in those places.”
Drafting an Innovative Approach
Mosher developed the brewing laboratory science program at UNC after noticing the
proliferation of big and small breweries across Colorado. He realized many startups
and even established companies lacked qualified lab personnel. That meant they were
left training people on the job and maybe only doing basic quality control.
With a Ph.D in organic chemistry and experience as a homebrewer since the late 1980s, Mosher recognized he could combine those elements and weave in other academic disciplines to create a new curriculum.
“This seemed like the logical next step,” he says. “It’s an attractive subject to teach, and I loved the multidisciplinary nature of brewing. It’s not just chemistry and biology; there’s so much history and physiology and botany and different fields woven into this big subject. I think the students pick up on the excitement and they can find something they like.”
Mosher launched a two-year pilot run of two brewing lab science courses within the chemistry department, starting in fall 2013. The first class attracted about 15 students without much advertisement. That was a promising sign. In spring 2014, Mosher teamed up with professors and staff from other departments and pitched a brewing lab science program to Innovation@UNC, an initiative to fund and develop novel teaching approaches on campus. The group proposed a new university certificate and minor, and a brewing system on campus. I@UNC funded the program, including the purchase of the brewing equipment and some small pieces of lab equipment used exclusively for beer brewing. The chemistry department chipped in additional support. The brewing operation, located in Parsons Hall, is under construction and acquiring necessary licenses.
The certificate program also officially started this fall. It requires students to complete three brewing laboratory science classes and receive a B grade or better in each class. Students’ first serving is Chemistry 370, a lecture-based introductory course to beer and the technical aspects of brewing that’s open to all students. For those pursuing the certificate, two additional courses, Chemistry 470 and 479, will be offered during the summer. (No beer-tasting occurs in the intro course, but the following classes do involve sampling batches, so students must be 21. They must also take a Breathalyzer test and return a 0.04 or less blood alcohol content before leaving class each day.)
The advanced classes take students into labs to analyze beer — both with and without the expensive precision equipment. “We talk about analysis methods, because if you’re working at a small startup brewery, they’re not going to have $10,000 or $100,000 instruments to do analysis,” Mosher says. “If you know the work the machines are doing, then you know some alternative methods to still get the same or similar results and what they mean. That’s the purpose of the [advanced-level] courses we teach.” Students also learn quality-control and quality-assurance processes, including American Society of Brewing Chemists (ASBC) analysis methods, commonly used by many breweries.
Lawler was among the students who signed up for the program’s first classes during the pilot phase. As a senior, and already a chemistry major, Lawler enrolled in Chemistry 370. “A lot of pre-med friends were in that class,” she laughs. “I didn’t know much about the chemistry of brewing beer, but I thought it would be interesting.”
Lawler enjoyed the intro course and then enrolled in 470. Meanwhile, Mosher began nudging her to apply for an internship with New Belgium. She got the position and soon began learning how to use the brewery’s lab equipment and shadowing technicians as they did their jobs. “I was taking classes and started working here, and I thought, ‘This could be a job?’” recalls Lawler. She had gotten over any pre-med plans.
Lawler says the brewing lab science program “helped me a lot,” especially learning laboratory protocol and ASBC methods. “I was able to learn about the different tools and what they do, and the things I’d need to know in the lab.” Standing in front of New Belgium’s foam stability tester, which provides an important measure of beer quality and “foam collapse” in just minutes, Lawler says, “In class, we had to do that [calculation] by hand, and it could take four to five times that or longer to run one sample.”
Lawler’s coursework and internship paid off when New Belgium offered her a full-time job after she graduated last May. “I think that’s great to have on your r?sum?,” she says of the curriculum and the brewing laboratory science certificate that students following her path will receive.
Dana Sedin, New Belgium lab manager and Lawler’s supervisor, agrees. Sedin has a Ph.D in chemistry, but he only became familiar with the specifics of brewing science through positions at Coors and, now, New Belgium. What the UNC curriculum is teaching students, “I had to learn on the job,” Sedin says. “There’s a lot of value in the program.”
From Molecules to Marketing
Mosher, who last year earned the Diploma in Brewing Examination from the prestigious
Institute of Brewing and Distilling, based in the United Kingdom, expects to have
about 15 students enrolled in the brewing science curriculum when the certificate
program begins. He anticipates numbers could eventually double. Next, the interdisciplinary
minor will begin in spring 2016, which will incorporate the certificate course load
and additional classes from recreation, tourism and hospitality; nutrition; and marketing;
and also work with campus Dining Services.
The program will also get a boost when the brewing operation opens, slated for next year. Mosher worked with Nebraska-based Alpha Brewing to purchase a seven-barrel equipment system that will allow students to brew, analyze and eventually, according to plans, offer and market their beers on campus for football games and other events.
In the meantime, Mosher is focused on promoting the program on campus and among regional breweries. Companies that have supported the program, taken on interns, or hired UNC students so far include Breckenridge Brewery, Loveland’s Verboten Brewery, Greeley’s Crabtree Brewing, New Belgium, and Coors in Golden.
“The amount of support for the program is incredible. I’ve looked around and haven’t found any other programs that are specific to brewing laboratory science,” Mosher says, mentioning that a Texas university is already modeling a program after UNC’s early efforts.
“Everyone seems to find this a very useful program and wants to make sure we’re successful at it.” With the program ready to be fully tapped and students already finding employment, Mosher can drink to that.