Sustainable brewing program up and running

Steve Bertman

Dr. Steve Bertman

Olga Bonfiglio
College of Arts and Sciences staff writer

He’s not a brewer or a businessman, but Dr. Steven Bertman knows how to collaborate with others in order to develop a new, vital and forward-thinking science degree program.

The professor of chemistry is one of the principals involved in developing the nation’s first sustainable craft brewing degree program through a WMU-Kalamazoo Valley Community College partnership. Students earn a certificate at KVCC, which then transfers to WMU as part of a Bachelor of Science degree in sustainable brewing. One possibility is a "two-plus-two" program where students transfer an Associates of Science degree from KVCC that includes the brewing certificate.

Brewing is a process that involves knowledge of chemistry, biology and technical knowledge in order to control a range of parameters. Consequently, the curriculum entails the craft of brewing science, hands-on techniques and practice and microbiology. The KVCC certificate also covers the legal aspects of brewing as well as quality control and business management skills and knowledge.

When a student moves from KVCC to WMU, s/he will work toward a bachelor of science degree taking courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Students will learn sustainability methods, environmental systems and the culture and role of brewing.

“Sustainable brewing is not a watered down science major,” said Bertman. “It is as rigorous and intense as any of our science or pre-med tracks.”

As part of the curriculum planning process, Michigan brewers were asked if there were enough need for a trained workforce in sustainable brewing.

“We were met with a resounding ‘yes,’” said Bertman.

An advisory board was created for the new curriculum. It includes Mike Babb, a former Coors master brewer who now teaches at the 130-year-old Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, and many of Michigan's top craft brewers from Bell’s Brewery, Short’s Brewing, Paw Paw Brewing, Arbor Brewing, Gonzo’s Biggdogg, Arcadia Brewing, Tapistry, Dark Horse Brewing and Brewery Vivant. Ed Martini, WMU associate dean for Extended University Programs, and Dean McCurdy, KVCC associate vice president for Food and Sustainability, are also part of the curriculum planning team.

The vision for the program is to build a presence for education and development as well as a place for research in brewing technology beyond traditional careers like more varied tracks in business, engineering, analytical services, research, study abroad. There is some investigation into programs dealing with other fermentation products like wine and cheese.

The program’s overall goals are threefold:

  • To support local breweries with trained and educated people.
  • To encourage students to enroll in the sciences.
  • To provide students with career opportunities in the sciences.

“Working with this diverse team has been one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever done,” said Bertman at a recent Mercantile Bank of Michigan Breakfast Speaker Series hosted by WMU’s Haworth College of Business. “It was a joy working with them. Partnership was the hallmark of our success.”

Beer has been part of human civilization since the beginning of civilization 9,000 years ago in Mesopotamia when farmers began planting barley. There is also evidence of fermented rice, grapes, honey and hawthorn berry residue on ancient jugs in southern China from 7,000 BCE—3,000 years before humans baked bread!

Early farmers learned that wet grain ferments into “liquid bread.” Early science gradually improved the brewing process over the centuries through experimentation with grains, processes and additives.

In 1516 the German Purity Laws for beer were drawn up to establish beer as we now know it, which has only three ingredients: water, barley and hops with yeast added for fermentation.

The Discovery Channel discusses this brewing history in detail through a documentary on “How Beer Saved the World.”

“Brewing is an art form,” said Bertman. “Like any food, it’s ephemeral, and when its ingredients are mixed in different ways, they create a variety of flavors, colors and textures.”

Today, however, water quality and controls over the brewing process are also considered. Consequently, students learn that brewing beer doesn’t start at the brewery but at the farm, and it doesn’t end at the restaurant/pub but with the management of the waste products from both production and consumption.

This is the reason sustainability was built into the program: to foster profitability and to pay attention to the environmental footprint by minimizing energy use, water consumption and waste and preserving water quality.

“It can take up to 10 to 12 liters of water to produce one liter of beer, so we are teaching students sustainability from the very beginning of their program as a natural matter of course,” said Bertman.

Michigan has become the Great Beer State and fifth largest in the nation with 229 craft breweries in fall 2015 and an economic impact of $2 billion each year. The Kalamazoo area alone has over a dozen breweries. Nationally, craft beer accounts for nearly 8 percent of beer sales. West Michigan is developing a strong reputation for craft brewing. In 2013, Grand Rapids was named Beer City USA, and Kalamazoo came in second.

Brewing has had an up and down history over the past 138 years. In 1878 there were 2,600 breweries in the United States. This number decreased with Prohibition (1920-33) and then dipped further after World War II (1945) when breweries merged into bigger companies. By 1978 there were only 89 American breweries. However, craft brewing has made a comeback starting in the 1980s with Bell’s Beer as one of the leaders. By 2014, breweries had had a 30-fold increase with over 3,500 breweries across the country and a new one opening every 12-16 hours.

“We saw this coming,” said Bertman. “Americans have developed more sophisticated palates for beer and their expectations are higher. That and local food products are the draw for this industry.”

WMU wanted to take advantage of these trends by looking into a sustainable brewing program, and it discovered there were relatively few formal programs in brewing. KVCC was having similar conversations with brewers and decided to include space for a brewery in its new Bronson Healthy Living Campus near Bronson Methodist Hospital. A new custom-built brewery built in Germany by Esau and Hueber was commissioned for the new building.                 

Since the program began last fall, KVCC has enrolled approximately 85 students and WMU has netted 30 declared majors.

"We're learning how to help sustainably grow an industry that is part of the overall health and sustainability of Michigan's economy," said Bertman.

As an added benefit, the brewing industry can also strengthen the local community socially.

“Beer brings people together again in the way that used to be so common,” said Bertman. “iPhones turn people inward whereas beer turns them outward.”

Craft beer drinkers are not aiming for drunkenness, but rather for socializing. They tend to be responsible in their consumption, loyal to local products and producers, supportive of local agriculture and interested in preserving farmland and healthy lifestyles of the community, said Bertman.